Please Grow Up

This post started as a post in support of Anita Sarkeesian. Everyone’s kept up to date with Anita Sarkeesian, right? The disgusting, brutal abuse which she has suffered, for the sole reason that she documented and sought to draw to the public’s attention, certain issues with the presentation of women in video games? It’s nothing new, of course: Anita’s Feminist Frequency and its series on Tropes vs Women In Video Games has been going for a while, and has attracted negative attention from certain elements of the community (e.g. assholes) since they began.

It started that way, but it became about all kinds of things, because the internet this week made me SO tired. Naked celebrities. Dragon Age romances. #GamerGate.

Why am I making a blog post about this stuff? Who cares about another nobody’s opinion on all these hot-button topics in our subculture, right?

WRONG. 

I mean, you’re not obligated to care about my opinion, honestly. Nobody is. But because I post in the pop-cultural space the people who I will, perhaps uncharitably, call “the bad guys” keep trying to turn me into an ally. Because, unlike many of my friends, I am not a woman, or gay, or transgender. Because I am, in fact, a member of that most privileged of all demographics – the white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, professional, cisgender male – I am not met with hate speech, or threats. I am not even met with imprecations, really. I am met with appeals.

I am approached by the worst kind of anti-feminists and exclusivity advocates who choose to cloak their reproaches in the language of rationality. “Don’t be fooled,” the haters cry. “Don’t be seduced. Nothing’s really wrong. How can it be, when you love so much that has come before? We are being misrepresented! We just want to keep things at their best!”

I’m making this post as a statement of policy, to which I will direct all such enquiries.

YOU ARE IN THE WRONG, GEEK CULTURE. YOU ARE IN THE WRONG, GAMING CULTURE. YOU ARE IN THE WRONG, COMICS CULTURE.

I’m not saying any person talking to me is wrong in any particular specific. I’m not even saying that I won’t engage in debate on a bunch of topics, because I will, I’m an easy mark like that.

What I’m saying is that if you believe the status quo (or, even worse, some halcyon imagined past) is not in need of drastic reform, we are arrayed against one another.

Alea iacta est. 

Please stop trying to recruit me for the team.

I’m not saying you’re all, necessarily, bad people – though some of you clearly, obviously are, I’m sorry to tell you. Being wrong about some things doesn’t make you bad. I’m frequently wrong (though I’m not wrong about this).

YOU ARE NOT AS ENTITLED AS YOU THINK YOU ARE.

I don’t care if bullies pantsed you in front of your confirmation class. I don’t care if you felt isolated and your only retreat was into science fiction. I don’t care if you’ve been gaming since Galaga.

You are not entitled to reserve a space for people who are “just like you”. You are not entitled to feel abandoned, because some people are asking for basic extensions of human decency. You are not entitled to hurt people, even if you yourself have, at some point in your life, been hurt. Guess what? We’ve ALL been hurt, but some people get the added difficulty of being hurt and having less support, less allies, less places to turn, just because of certain elements of how they were born.

Someone tried to tell me today, with a straight face, that gaming wasn’t “for” women, that it never would be, and that attempts to trying to make it so were flawed and wrong, because women had other spaces to be and men deserved a space that could be “for them”, in a way that clearly took “for them” right over the edge of “to the detriment of anybody else”.

Like so many elements of geek culture, the argument ultimately came down to that old saw, that bugaboo that so many geeks seem afraid of:

“Secretly, everyone hates me. They fail to see what I deserve.” 

Secretly, everyone hates me – so they’re going to take things I like away from me. Secretly, everyone hates me – so they’re going to try and be involved in a space I thought was designed only for my benefit. Secretly, everyone hates me-  so why shouldn’t I be suspicious when they seem to love the things I love. Secretly, everyone hates me – so why shouldn’t I see women as enemies trying to deny me what I want.

Secretly, everyone hates me – so why shouldn’t I hate them?

They fail to see what I deserve – I’ve had a hard life, so I deserve a space where everything comes easily to me. They fail to see what I deserve – some kind of sexual reward for being a nice person, as I see myself in my own head. They fail to see what I deserve – a community of like minds in every respect, because I was once lonely. They fail to see what I deserve – I’ve been a loyal consumer all this time, so everything should be targeted to me.

They fail to see what I deserve – I deserve the love of my culture, manifested as obedience to my whim, because I have loved it.

Do you know who sees love as obedience? Children. It’s children who cry and scream “You don’t love me” when a parent sends them to bed or takes away their toy or makes them share with the other kids. It’s children who throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want in the toy store, when another child gets more praise than them, when they’re expected to let someone else talk and breathe and be.

It’s infinitely more childish to behave this way than to pick up a console and pretend to fly a spaceship, roll some dice and fight imaginary elves, or escape for a while to a place where you can believe that people can fly. I will defend to the hilt that there’s nothing immature about that, but there is so much that is immature in the culture surrounding that.

A bunch of people freaked out this week when it was suggested that the term “gamer” needs to go away. The reason for getting rid of it is simple, it’s keeping people out. It is for keeping people outAnd all the counter-arguments, that it’s about loyalty, about self-identity, about bona fides, they’re disingenuous. It’s not about how loyal you are, that’s easy enough to establish without recourse to a tribal marker – it’s about establishing how other people aren’t loyal enough. That they haven’t “earned” it. They don’t deserve what you deserve, which is, by some accounts, everything.

Just stop it. You’re on the wrong side of history – but more than any of that: none of these people hate you. They’re just asking for a seat at the table which has given you succour. They’re just saying “you are hurting me, please stop.” You do understand that’s what it’s about, right? When someone says “this is a problem for me”, they’re saying “this thing, if it continues unabated, is actively going to make my life worse”. There’s no possible justification for that, in the world of entertainment, no reason to hurt someone else just to make yourself feel better. That’s bullying, that thing you’re supposed to hate, remember?

If you honestly, truly, think that your life has made you a victim, start having some sympathy for real victims. Start realising that, yes, mummy and daddy are going to pay attention to your other brothers and sisters, but that’s okay. You don’t need it all, and you’ll get a fair share, anyway. You might get less toys, but you’ll have more kids to play with.

Please grow up. Please just stop it. And if you’re not going to stop it, please stop asking me to join you. I’m over there with them.

Catharsis, and the Ruins of Catharsis

I still remember the smell of the dumpster. Rotten vegetables and piss. The rotten vegetables were cabbage and leeks, mostly. To this day I can’t smell cabbage cooking without throwing up. Some of the piss was what you might imagine, the territorial markings of dogs and the occasional lazy homeless guy who’d been shaken out of the gas station down the street. Some of it was Todd’s. Some of it was Ethan’s. And, God help me, yes, some of it was mine. I’d pissed my pants, and more, and I was desperately trying to hold it together. I was lying face down in that filth, tears running down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop shaking.

It’s funny though, because I remember that so clearly, but everything else seems like a white fog. An emptiness. A nothing. There are only snapshots of it left to me now. Moments that echo in my nightmares.

I don’t sleep much anyway. Sometimes, when I’ve taken some pills or something harder, I drop away. Rising out of the haze of booze like an iceberg out of a dark sea, a few images I can dash myself to pieces on.

There was a rush, like the passing of a jet engine far too close over me, carrying a wind behind it that nearly buffeted me to the street. There was a roar, like thunder cracking in my head, but still rattling the windows and awnings. Todd and Ethan heard it too. I know that much. I remember afterwards there was laughing. Some deep malevolent chuckle, like an Olympian god rather too fond of practical jokes, but also a piping celebratory giggle. A child’s laugh, or at least a childlike laugh.

Sometimes I can almost see it, even though I don’t want to. Sinuous, like a snake, but hairy too, like someone’s rabid dog. Too big, though. Much too big to be. White, blinding white, so white that it hurt your eyes to see.

Lying in that dumpster, even with fighting against my disgust with the effluvia that pressed against my face, even against the vomit I was choking back down into my gut, I was happy to be there. Happy to feel it. As foul as it was, it was inside my frame of reference, some kind of handle to hold onto when the world came crashing down.

We got Todd back on his feet and we walked him home. He never said anything. Not one word. His mom came rushing out when we got back to the steps of his building, looking at the stains and marks that covered him. She shook him by the shoulders again and again, trying to make him say anything, but he was quiet. Always quiet. It was maybe forty-five minutes before Todd’s dad came home, dragged Todd’s mother off him and asked us what had happened.

What were we going to say? What could we say?

They took Todd out of school. I’d known him since we were three years old, and I never saw him again. I found out a few years ago that he’d ended up in an asylum up in Maine, that he’d killed himself. I never found out whether or not he said anything, let alone anything about what had happened to us.

Just one look at what had happened to Todd made it easy for Ethan and me to make a decision. We’d never tell anyone. We thought if we just kept it quiet, that it’d just go away. Sometimes we’d even fool ourselves into thinking that was true. It didn’t keep us from the child psychiatrists though, from the probing questions that wouldn’t cease even after we told everyone that it was fine, that we were fine, that we didn’t know what had happened.

I think Ethan might have broken the promise. I think he might have told the high school shrink after he was caught setting that car on fire. He swore up and down to me that he didn’t, but after that the Principal started watching us closely, and I’d catch odd looks from that counselor when I passed her in the hall.

Ethan went a little wild after that. Everything seemed so breakable, he used to say, like a movie set. A world made out of balsa wood and painted cardboard. He wanted to shake it up, tear it down, peel back the facade and make people see what we had seen. He was in and out of juvie through our teen years. Got pretty heavily involved in the drug scene. I don’t see him much anymore either. The last time was about 6 years ago. He’d OD’d. His parents had cut him off as his emergency contacts, and I guess he didn’t have anywhere else to turn. I saw him out of the hospital, posted bail for the arrest, tried to get him into a drug diversion program. It didn’t take. He stole $600 bucks from me and hit the streets, off to chase the dragon again.

Then there’s me. I like to think that I did better, but who the fuck am I kidding? I tried to stay straight edge in school, figured that if I settled down and did my best to be a “normal” kid, that it’d be easier to pretend that it was all some kind of function of overactive juvenile imagination. Lifted my grades up, went to a good college. Started writing for the newspapers. Held on even though print was dead.

God, I felt like such a fraud. I still do. Writing about all these little truths, knowing every day I’m living a lie. Hours down at the library, raiding the secondhand bookshops, trying to figure out what it was I’d seen. I even went to the bookstore that little shit ran into the day before, the one we missed on the first pass but must have been the only place he could’ve gone. That old son-of-a-bitch who ran the place might’ve known something, maybe. I always had that vibe, but whenever I’d go there, he’d hustle me out of the shop. Said I was a “bad kid”, and that I had to go away. He started keeping the place locked all the time, and after a little while, he closed up. The place became a cigar shop.

Maybe we were bad kids, but we didn’t deserve anything like what had happened to us. What the fuck did we know, anyway? We were eleven years old, and we weren’t into anything heavy. We pushed a couple of kids around. We took some lunch money, shoplifted some comics and some skin magazines, and thought we were pretty badass. But we never hurt anybody, not really and we would’ve grown out of it. We kept our curfew, listened to our parents, didn’t know anyone really from the wrong side of the tracks. We were just scared kids in a big city, and we tried to stay mellow by making ourselves feel like the big fish in a little pond.

That day, that kid we pushed around, it was a shitty thing to do. I admit that. But it wasn’t until a few years later when it all snapped together for me. That little asshole with the weird name, I heard at school that his dad remarried and that they weren’t getting along, but he still used to wear this smug little grin. Like he was the king of the goddamn world. One day, I heard him laughing at some stupid joke in a book, muttering to himself, on his own as usual. That laugh. It was the same high pitched laugh as what I heard that day in the alley. It was him.

I think he might have yelled something at us, or to us, but I’ve lost that. I just remember him laughing.

Whatever we did to him, it was nothing compared to what he did to us. What was life going to be after that? How can you deal with something that everyone knows should be impossible, but that every sense you have screams happened to you? Was he going to fucking kill us? You always hear about the weird kids at school, the losers, sitting at home fantasizing about taking out the other kids, the ones who laughed at them. Was that what he was planning? If so, why didn’t he do it?

Even more than any of that though, what was that thing that chased us? If he’d pulled a semi-automatic and tried to gun us down right there, I’d buy that. It would’ve been traumatic, it would’ve been awful, but I think I could’ve dealt with it. That thing, that thing that came out of the clear blue fucking sky, that couldn’t have existed – how could anything feel real after that? How could I sleep or eat or go to school knowing that the rules didn’t apply? That something like that could come from nowhere at any time?

He was riding the thing. God help me, he was riding it like a goddamn horse, sitting in the fucking air like something out of a fairy story. It chased us because he wanted it to. He was controlling it. Forget what it was, what the fuck was he? He got Todd and he got Ethan and some day, I know, he’s going to get me too.

My sleeping pills don’t keep the nightmares back any more. I’ve gotten older and I’ve tried shrinks and booze and prayer and every other goddamn thing imaginable, and nothing even dampens the white hot certainty and terror of those moments, those moments that I can’t even really recall. God help me if things become clearer, God help me if I truly remember it all.

Bastian Bux, man. Same middle initial too. The Devil? Some weird scientist’s kid? What did we ever do, really, that made us deserve something like that?

It’s the questions that keep me up nights. The whys and whats of it, all the pieces that I never know will never truly fit. My entire life’s become some kind of riddle with no answer, some circle line I’ll never get off, all because like millions of other kids the world over, I was a bully for six months in my elementary school. I pray that it’s not going to feel like this forever, but I know it is.

Stories like mine? They never end.

 

Perfidy Beyond The Gate Of Water

Many stumble on the road to Heaven, not because they are unsure of foot, but because their eyes look too deeply into the mirror of a still pond. Nixon was such a man.

Grandmaster of the Swaying Snake style, Nixon had defeated many foes. He was known for his innovation on the tournament ground, for subtle feints and devastating flurries from unexpected directions. Though the Golden Child had defeated him in the last decade, Nixon remained resilient, eventually wresting control of his school from his rivals and rising to become President.

Nothing stood in his way to challenge for the position of Sifu-Sai-Sifu, Master of Masters.

Lord Buddha, though, is unequaled in sagacity. He had decreed that the title of Sifu-Sai-Sifu could only be held by one who had tasted the Fruit of Compassion, which grew in the Vineyards of the White Plains, beyond the Gate of Water. These grapes were said to hold the wisdom of Lord Buddha himself, and would bestow upon any who tasted them the wit and skill needed to rule as Sifu-Sai-Sifu.

Nixon grew wroth. He knew, deep in himself, that he was Sifu-Sai-Sifu. Had he not bested his enemies? Had he not faced the Jackal School using the Checkered Dog style? Had he not thrown down Romney and Rockefeller with his faithful sworn-brother Spiro at his back? Had he not stood astride the Kingdom of Qin like a god? How could he not receive the mandate of Heaven when his stars were so auspicious?

Nixon determined that the Fruit of Compassion must be his. He commissioned a wandering band of masterless men, devotees of no style and of all styles, the assassins known as “The Creep”, to move in shadow beyond the Gate of Water and obtain the grapes of Heaven’s Garden.

Lord Buddha, however, has sight in the most unexpected of places. Praise be to Lord Buddha and his wisdom.

The Creep were caught beyond the Gate of Water. They revealed to Lord Buddha the members of Nixon’s school who had hired them. Across the land, dark whispers were told of Grandmaster Nixon. The collected brotherhoods averted their eyes from his path. Though none had named him, all spoke of the chaos within the Swaying Snake school. How could he be sifu, and not have known?

Nixon did not stay and fight for his honour.

He broke his jian across his knee using the Four-Fingers Upraised Technique and walked away from the White House of his mastery. Many tore their hair and rent their garments. Others cried out in jubilation to the wisdom of Lord Buddha for revealing the Snakes’ treachery.

Nixon went to meditate in the Heavenly Mountains. None saw him for years.

One day, however, as he sat, there was a great twittering of sparrows from below. Up the mountain path stepped Lazar the Swift, master of the Storm Dance, sifu to the Honeyed Coast. He had long sparred with Nixon, and taught him many things.

“Great tidings, Noblest of Men!” cried the Lazar, bowing before Nixon, who sat unmoved, his legs in lotus, on his stump.

“Go away, Swift One,” spoke Nixon, “I am contemplating the wheel of the Universe, that raises men high and casts them low once more.”

The Lazar bowed again. “The Great Wheel turns once more in your favour, August Personage. I bring a message from David Frost.”

David Frost was a foreigner, a man of no great repute. Like Lord Siddartha that was, Frost was fat with wealth, known for his easy graces. He spoke highly of his Smiling Ice style, but the gossips said he fought only painted actors and lesser clans.

“What is David Frost to me?” asked Nixon. “He dwells far to the south, in a desert land of ghosts. It is clam-shells, not bones, that break beneath his feet. I was to be Sifu-Sai-Sifu. Now I am nothing. Let me dwell in peace.”

“Oh, Mighty One,” said the Swift sifu, “Far be it from this one to correct you, but David Frost may be all to you. He sends messengers far and wide. They all speak of one thing. David Frost possesses the Jade Circlet. It is a treasure he offers to you, Nixon, if you can take it. Defeat him in combat, and the Jade Circlet is yours.”

Nixon stretched legs long accustomed to the post of contemplation. A grin spread across his face, and his fists moved to elegant zhaoshi techniques. “That lapdog, that cur, wishes to fight me? With the Jade Circlet, none amongst the Thousand Schools could deny me entrance. I could not be Sifu-Sai-Sifu, but they would need to welcome me back amongst their number! Once more my place would be on the tournament field, not in the shadows. My honour would be restored!”

The Lazar bowed again. “Just so, August Personage. Just so. Defeat Frost, and who knows who will deign to fight you next. The Jade Circlet is an honour many men desire.”

Nixon spun, and with a blow of his Impeccable Low Knee Technique shattered the stump into a million pieces. “Go now, Lazar. Find Jack Brennan, who was once my student. Hie with him to Frost and tell him, we shall fight. Brennan may set the terms on my behalf. RUN!”

The Lazar hopped away.

The terms were set. Frost and Nixon would fight for twelve days and twelve nights. Nixon left his Peaceful Castle high in the mountains and descended to meet Frost by the bay. Many came from leagues away to see if Nixon could restore his honour in the duel.

No-one knows what Frost and Nixon said to each other before the battle, though many rumourmongers speak of many things. What is known is that Frost and Nixon bowed to one another, and battle was joined.

Long they fought. For each move Frost assayed, Nixon had a countermove. The Rain of Impossible Fists was countermanded with the Obfuscating Shadow Technique. The Structured Exploding Palm Delivery was resisted with the Entangling Ropes of Ratungara. Frost’s icy fists launched forth assaults, coupled with a fierce aside. “How could you disobey the teachings of Lord Buddha?”

Driving the Golden Jaguar Punch into Frost’s sternum, Nixon replied only. “When the President does it, it is not a violation of the teachings of Lord Buddha!”

All was thought lost. Frost was no match for Nixon’s long-held mastery of style. The harder he fought, the swifter Nixon countered. For every blow Frost could muster, Nixon had an answering technique.

But Lord Buddha is not fooled. It is not knowledge of the styles that makes a man a master of qing-gong, nor is the loyalty of jianghu born out of the swiftness or the strength. It is focus which makes a warrior a master. Discipline. For Nixon, Master of a Thousand Enemies, the loss of focus was the loss of all.

A high kick from Nixon took Frost in the shoulder, spinning him through a forested copse of trees. Leaping through the blinding rain, Nixon floated above him, borne aloft by the air, his body in perfect harmony. He prepared to finish the interloper.

David Frost stood still. He did not look up at Master Nixon as the Razor Talon Implosion descended upon him. He held his fists close, to his centre of being, mastering his qi.

As Nixon descended, Frost asked in a whisper. “Mr President. Why didn’t you earn the grapes?”

The rest of the battle is history. Nixon never regained his honour. He could not meet the challenge.

Know in this teaching Lord Buddha makes examples of all men. Mighty was Nixon in his skills, mightier than all he assayed. But mastery of the self is mastery of the world, and Nixon could not see beyond what he thought he deserved. Contemplate this, and fight well.

John Constantine and the Ethic of Redemption

By now, everyone who is interested in reading this post has likely seen the trailer for NBC’s Constantine. It certainly has a surprising degree of fidelity to the trappings of John’s world. He’s in Ravenscar, from an exorcism gone wrong. He rides around in a cab, has a Liverpudlian accent (or Walsh’s best attempt at one) and has the signature look pretty much down pat. He even says “bollocks” which is a nice touch. Hopefully after the watershed they’ll let him swear properly.

Beyond all the shallow, surface material though, they’ve hit a couple of beats perfectly. By choosing to set the adaptation during and immediately after John’s incarceration in Ravenscar, they actually pick up on one of his least detailed periods of history, and one of the principal times when his character is in flux. They paint John as having had his old arrogance, his risk-taking, early confident occult behaviour, and now accept him as having fallen into self-castigation and remorse. In essence, they capture John Constantine at a low-ebb, ready to rise from the ashes of his dead self into a more world-weary, but active, human being.

All good. So why the vague tone of reservation that pervades these opening remarks? Well, because of one line in the trailer. To begin with, I should note that it is one line in a trailer, easily taken out of context, but that I still fear might indicate an overall tone for the series: “Are you suggesting that it’s not too late for me to save my soul?”

This brought my overall enjoyment to a screeching halt, because it has, potentially, massive ramifications to the overall personality and philosophy of Constantine. Not because the attempt to obtain ‘redemption’ is inherently antithetical to his character. Far from it. I (along with my erstwhile comic-book colleague) have already written about John’s disappointed idealism, and his guilt, so to suggest that part of him might want to assuage that, to make himself into a better person should be nothing new. There’s nothing wrong about wanting to rise above his inner demons – John has tried it many times, and usually fails. If the expression itself were isolated, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all this, but the press release indicates it might be more of a thrust of the show.

The problem with this remark is that it buys into something I’ll call “the redemption scoreboard”. The idea that if you gain a certain number of “good deeds” your past sins will be forgiven and you will be a righteous person again (often escaping damnation or reaping a reward). Constantine, the Keanu Reeves adaptation actually fell into the same trap. “I need to save my soul”, says John, implicitly from the torments of the damned that he has now earned through all the things he’s done. There’s just one problem: John should not be accepting that the work can ever be done, or that there is anyone capable of making the judgment that a soul has now been ‘saved’. This is ‘gamist’ morality, a sensation that you mark up your points here or there and that if you manage to accrue enough points in one column, that’s the category you fall into. Good or bad. Learn how to game the system.

Firstly, I have to question the premise that there is a point at which a certain amount of good “washes out” the bad. A murderer who gives to charity is still a murderer, even if on a strictly utilitarian viewpoint the charity provides more benefit than the murder provides a detriment. There is no practical point at which a magic light turns on and says “You are now a good person again”. Many narratives attempt to create this story, with varying degrees of internal logic and success, but it always strikes us as a little hollow, an attempt ultimately to trick moral accounting with a numbers game. The idea of good and evil as qualities which can be “bought off” has a sickening corollary, that a certain amount of good justifies evil. Redemption does not, and cannot function like this. Doing good doesn’t erase the bad you’ve done, even where the narrative is set up so as to have you seek to directly contradict the consequences of your mistakes. It’s just that continuing to do good enables you to look at yourself in the mirror. Redemption isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. There’s nothing you can do that will ‘save your soul’, because your soul is fundamentally your own, and redemption is about acting in such a way as to enable you to look at yourself in the mirror and say “hey, at least I’m trying to do better”. Trying to do better. That’s all there is.

Now, of course, that’s an atheist’s perspective. There are many religions which hold directly with redemption and atonement as a discrete act of salvation, the redemption scorecard maintained by the almighty judgment of a higher power. I will note, however, in most of the religions that subscribe to the concept of sin, there are two critical distinctions which take the focus away from the scorecard. The first is that sin is, in most incarnations of the sin based religions, inevitable, either from original sin carried from birth or from the particularity of human nature which inclines people to wrongful behaviour. Sooner or later, you will become a sinner. The other critical issue is that redemption by those metrics is usually an instance of grace. That a higher power takes pity on you as a poor sinner, and forgives you your sins because you believe. Christians can go check Romans, Chapter 11, Verse 6 if they’re looking for an easy breakdown, because it lays it out pretty clearly: whether or not you do good works is irrelevant under the Biblical construction – you are a damned sinner until belief in God pays the way for you.

Much of Hellblazer turns on the issue that no-one, from God to the Devil, can make a complete accounting of character. God is, at one point, suggest to be a violent, sadistic masturbating maniac eating flies in the corner. But more important than this lack of complete accounting is that Hellblazer is, and to be true to itself must be, anti-authoritarian. Hellblazer founds itself on the principle that to allow a higher power to clear you of moral accountability in return for worship is anathemic. Is disgraceful. Is a betrayal of humanity. That’s the real sin of Constantine the movie, not Shia LeBeouf or Keanu Reeves’ accent. It’s that John wants to get back on God’s good side, that the movie universe cannot conceive of taking issue with the ultimate creator.

My experience of American media tends to be that it will concede God is absent, and the universe is without moral order, but that it will not accept that perhaps the forces arrayed against us are actively disinclined towards our interests. Hellblazer posits that the measure of a person is that in the face of overwhelming odds, in the face of God saying you are damned, that the only thing to do is take a complete accounting of your own soul and determine whether or not you can live with your personal accounting. And if you can’t, to take your lumps. Not necessarily from God or the Devil, but from yourself. John falls so low so many times because he falls short of his own self-estimation. It’s only when some holier-than-thou bastard comes down from on high to remind him that they have the audacity to try and keep score of the complexity of human interactions that he’s galvanised back to being himself.

The brilliance, the uniqueness, of Hellblazer is that it posited a universe where the supernatural existed, and beyond that, where there was a mystic order to the universe, a battle between light and darkness so common in fantasy texts, and a man slouched into it and spat that the world was more complicated than that, that to divide it into Manichean terms was a profound injustice to the poor bastards who had to live in it. This stood in for governments and churches and police officers, but it also stood in, yes, for God and the moral order.

It’s still early, early, early days yet. I’m still excited by the show, and I like the trailer more now I’ve watched it a few times. It’s just something I’m going to be live to in looking at it in future, because for someone who truly believes that we need to look away from the idea of a big scoreboard in the sky, John’s moral character is pretty damn important to me, and that includes not buying into the idea that God functions like Santa, coming to give gifts to the good children and punish the wicked ones. 

John Constantine shouldn’t accept an ethic by which someone else can say that he’s okay now. That he’s done what he needed to do. He knows that’s a battle that’ll never stop, that he’ll sometimes fuck up and sometimes succeed at and sometimes fall somewhere in the middle. He’s not on the side of the angels, but then, who would want to be?

The Winter Soldier (With Robert Goulet)

If ever I would soldier, it wouldn’t be in summer
Soldiering in summer, I never would go
Your arm made from metal, your gun firing flame
Your face with a faceplate, that conceals your name

But if I’d ever soldier, it couldn’t be in autumn
Soldiering in autumn, I never would know
I’ve seen how you backflip and glide through the air
I know you in autumn and I must be there

And could I soldier
Fighting brutally through the snow
Or on a wintry evening
When you crash the Helicarrier so?

If ever I would soldier, it couldn’t it be in springtime
Knowing how in spring, I’ve avenging to GO…
Oh, no, not in springtime, summer, winter, or fall
No never, could I soldier AT ALL!

 

With thanks to Ian Menard (and Lerner and Loewe)

The Critic As Artist Redux

The very sharp Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an excellent piece over at his blog discussing the need for film and television critics to write about the form of the media they review as much as the themes and emotional impact that the media conveys. Discuss the nuts and bolts of how things work, to an equal, if not greater extent, to the effect they ultimately achieve.

Matt is not wrong. And I should preface this little blog entry by stating that Matt has a Pulitzer Prize nomination and is internationally renowned, and I write for a professional blog with a relatively limited circulation and a relatively niche (though not as niche as it used to be) set of topics. I unequivocally state that Matt knows vastly more about the industry, and certainly more about criticism than me.

However, Zack Handlen, who writes for the AV Club, and whose work I have always enjoyed, posted on Twitter to the effect that in the wake of that sensible, and compellingly argued article he was concerned that absent the appropriate tools to discuss the form, he should not be working as a critic in the field. That got me thinking about what criticism means in the current cultural context, and what values it has outside the strictly educative aspects.

Whilst I agree with Matt that writing about form fulfills a vital function (and, indeed, in my own work I do spend a fair bit of time writing about form), I think that given it is not the only function of criticism to deconstruct the formal composition of the subject (a proposition with which I would hope Matt and most readers would agree) there are nevertheless vital and worthwhile functions served by the critic who does not discuss form, or discuss form significantly.

I’ve actually been thinking about this topic for a while now, and am thankful that this exchange spurred me to write it up. Matt’s post begins with Ted Gioia’s comments about music criticism becoming increasingly a form of autobiography. That the discussion tends to be of the critic’s reaction and what it says to them at the time as opposed to the technical aspects of the music. Whilst I think that there is a lot of essential truth to this argument, I think that the landscape of criticism has changed so much in the last decade that we need to embrace that altered structure as a new evolution of the form.

Like it or not, the internet has given literal effect to the old adage that everyone’s a critic. We have neologisms like blogosphere to describe the bevy of people who offer up criticism of the media they consume. Most of them, on a strict percentage basis, lack the traditional tools of criticism – knowledge of form and academic background in the field – but they are capable of assessing whether or not media spoke to them and are more than keen to offer up their opinion about it. Indeed, opinion has become the currency of the internet – approval and disapproval sound as blog entries, Reddit and forum threads and sharp vox pop soundbites on Twitter. At the same time, the internet’s unparalleled ability to provide the ready collection of data has given rise to the science (or pseudoscience) of critical aggregation. “74% of critics liked it!” “Metacritic average score of 8.4 out of 10″, etc, etc.

For many critics, this can (and I’m sure in some cases does) feel like a dilution of the critic’s function. Once everyone has a platform to express their opinion loudly, and once critical consensus becomes the dominant “tag” of critical approbation, the function of a well-reasoned, carefully structured review concentrating on the form can feel compromised. To an extent, it’s only natural that critics, particularly smart critics, want to “clean house” to fight back against this tide because they feel that a body of scholarship is being compromised.

I do agree that criticism is a key form of scholarship, and is extremely prevalent in understanding how works affect us, and accordingly how both media and the mind work. For the key consumer of criticism however, they are not necessarily looking for a deconstruction of the form: in some cases they will not understand the terms, and in many more cases they may not necessarily care. What the public generally wants to know is whether or not they are going to like a piece of media, not whether or not they should. This is the cause of the fundamental disconnect continually portrayed between audiences and critics, why people talk about pieces of work “not being for critics” or “critical darling” films being snoozefests for the general audience. It’s not (necessarily) because the general audience is dumber than the critics, nor that they simply do not have access to the tools, its that their interest on what is being presented to them focuses on particular areas, most usually their likelihood of enjoyment.

Likelihood of enjoyment, however, is difficult to quantify. As Matt points out, focusing on the formal aspects of the piece being criticised allows people to understand the ideas emotions that the creators of the piece are attempting to convey, and allows an interested party to make an assessment at their success in conveying them. But the first test in conveying ideas and emotions is, fundamentally, a personal one, because if ideas and emotions are conveyed via the piece, they’ll occur to the consumer of the piece by virtue of what the piece presents.

What someone feels in experiencing any form of media is inherently a personal experience. A gifted writer can communicate it, they can encapsulate it, but like trying to describe a colour to someone else, you can never truly be sure you’re talking about the same thing. That’s where the emotive, and the autobiographical elements of criticism come to the fore. To an extent, you’re only ever telling the audience how you felt when you experienced something, and then explaining to them why you felt that way. Matt points out that the why of the matter comes, at least in part, from the technical process that causes the piece to function in the way that it does, but the why of the matter also comes from who the critic is and what elements of their personality inform their emotional responses.

There are a bevy of critics out there, and as both a putative (or at least attempted) critic and a consumer of criticism, I tend to find that my method for deriving the primary function of criticism to a consumer (which is, ultimately, an assessment of whether or not I should see/read/reevaluate a piece of media) comes down to the degree of trust I have in the critic. Sometimes that trust comes from the display of virtuosity, in the knowledge that they can see things in the particular piece that I may have missed or point out that these things deserve to be seen, but sometimes that trust comes from the openness of the reviewer, the understanding that they’re coming from a similar place to me, and that my emotional reactions, whilst never precisely the same, are likely to flow along the same channel.

What Matt proposes is an easy enough thing to accomplish (one tenth of a review given over to formal elements – and it’s worth noting that the discussion of formal elements doesn’t in fact require formal education – stating that silence surrounding the whispered word of an actor lends special emphasis to that pronouncement requires nothing more than the evidence of your senses), and he’s right that it is worthwhile and admirable for critics to try and educate the public about why things work the way they work and why this is information worth having.

But being that it’s not the only function, I think it’s problematic to try and classify other critics as part of the problem. We live in a mass, mass, mass media culture. I took the title for this post from an essay by Oscar Wilde which discusses the function of criticism against the background of the relatively new phenomenon of mass journalism and mass readership, but mass journalism and readership has now been replaced by mass authorship. The critic is no longer lecturing, even to a class of interested students, they’re engaged in a dialogue with people who are increasingly reluctant to be told that they have less right, or even less ability to communicate their emotions to the outside world. That behooves the critic to find their own voice, unique amongst the multitude, crying in the wilderness, and trust that discussion of formalism will have enough oomph to attract readers to learning out of aspects of their own interest, and that discussion of emotions and themes will likewise have enough to attract readers to spending some time in the head of that author.

Criticism belongs to the culture, and the culture has changed its shape. Criticism, and indeed, all art, are changing shape towards personalised demographics, people selecting how they want to receive information and on what subjects. The rate of media production, once in the context of media you include (as one must) blogs, websites for commentary, television, YouTube, films, books, e-books, magazines, zines, comic books, Tweets, games, etc, etc, etc vastly outstrips the time people have to consume it. People are (and always have been) selecting what information comes to them, but they are now much better equipped with the tools to do it. Like it or not, selection bias is going to come into play, and if people want a discussion of form, they’ll know, or easily be able to find out, where to get it.

The role of the critic is going only to become increasingly reputational and increasingly interpersonal because the only distinction the audience will be able to draw is whether or not they find the work of the critic compelling, and that means not just telling people what’s happening with media, but making an argument for why they should be listening to you. That means speaking to them in the language that matters to you, because the one thing that the world now has a surfeit of is people who are willing to offer their genuine opinion in a public space, even if that’s cloaked behind a fake name or online avatar.

That means, as a critic, your fundamental role is to be honest about yourself, not just in terms of your knowledge and qualifications, but also in terms of your emotions and preferences. If a critic is going to talk about form, they should let the audience know that up front, and if a critic is not going to talk about form they should let the audience know that too. They should be respectful of the priorities others emphasise in their criticism, and they should always be willing to point out that they’re skipping over something or that a differing analysis should be found elsewhere. I don’t think, however, that the genie can go back into the bottle, and that ‘critics’ can define themselves by reference to a particular school or a particular set of emphases within the critical sphere. It’s too late for that – the meaning of ‘critic’ has changed. It’s not a guild with exclusivity: anyone with a blog can describe themselves as a critic, and people will take that with a much greater degree of bona fide legitimacy than the offered up opinions of a random joe on the street corner, even if it’s the same random joe. The term ‘critic’ is becoming increasingly devoid of meaning, and more and more important will instead be the function of standing up and saying “This is who I am, and these are my views”.

This doesn’t mean that the intellectualism of discussion of media has changed. It just means that critics are forced to hear, and respond to, the other half of the conversation. The up-until-recently unexpressed voice that would read an article on film and declare “critics don’t know what they’re talking about – I liked the explosions”. There is still a place to make the argument that things are well executed and poorly executed and there is logic and educated standpoints to be taken on those issues and I’m glad Matt is out there doing so in his way. I’m also glad Zack’s out there doing it his way, and to an extent that I’m out there doing it my way. It’s not even a Darwinist view, because your opinions remain out there, even if someone else’s opinions are preferred. The critic still has the power to write about why something worked for them, and have it heard by those wanting to hear it. It’s the appeal to authority that’s gone for good.

How Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth…

…to have a fickle fan!

“You got rid of Saul Bass!” you cry, (presuming anybody is reading enough to care). “You had a whole post discussing the merits of the classic designer and why you selected the theme in the first place. Now we’ve got this very readable black-on-white, sans-serif stuff!” 

Like Martin Prince’s power-plant, it may be lacking in heart, but it really functions. The automatic indents on the previous theme were becoming a real problem for short, staccato paragraphs. And since NerdSpan is now my home for various pop-cultural musings, this blog is more and more devoted to rants, occasional thoughts, Doctor Who and (surprisingly, though not that surprisingly) song lyrics – all of which are arenas in which indentation is important.

So, “a little plainer but a little more practical” was the ethos of the switch. Saul Bass is still fantastic, and I remain a huge fan thereof. I just wanted people to be able to see.