Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bibliophile: Machinima, Simpsons, and Radio Waves at The Memorial University of Newfoundland

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”
― Gustave Flaubert

After a brief hiatus, we've back, with a discussion of the new books available at... what's this week's university? Well, it was going to be St. Thomas University, or New Brunswick University, but both of these libraries don't allow searching from anyone who is not a student or faculty member, which is a rather unfriendly, elitist thing to do. And Moncton University is a French school, and while I have nothing against the language, the nontrivial effort it would require me to translate the page prohibits me from picking it. So that's it for New Brunswick. Next, then: The Memorial University of Newfoundland, after the break.

MUofN has a proper new books page, which is greatly appreciated. The new books are divided into sublibraries, and then subjects.  I'll start with the main library and branch out. The subjects are in alphabetical order.

Radio fields: Anthropology and wireless sound in the 21st century. / edited by Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher.
Subject: Anthropology. In general, I'm in favor of studying contemporary uses of technology, so I thought I'd give this book a go. It's a collection of essays, based around the notion that radio is the world's most widespread communication technology, but one that receives relatively little anthropological attention. Also note that one professor says in his review of the book that it "crackles and buzzes," which is a terrible, terrible pun, and is saluted for that reason. The book consists of thirteen essays, including sensuous and linguistic epistemologies in radio culture; Appalachian Radio Prayers; Radio in the (i)Home and Britain; female preachers and Muslim authority; radio engineering Israeli National Imaginaries; Ideologies and FM Radio in Nepal.  Looks like they're really laying claim to that "global reach" perspective. H.

Mapping cultures: place, practice, performance / edited by Les Roberts
Subject: Anthropology. It's a collection of essays on maps. I like maps. Mostly, I like them in videogames and fantasy novels, but I suppose real maps have their appeal too. The book is divided into three parts. First is Place, Text, and Topography, which includes essays on Coleridge and literary cartography, Rohmer and cinematic cartography in Post-war Paris, and the cartographic imagination of Manchester. Part II is performance, memory, and location, which includes mapping music-making in Liverpool, using locative media to explore historical maps, and participatory mapping through material artifacts. And Part III is Practice, Apparatus, Cartographics, which has essays on maps and marketing urban experience, mental maps and the fragmentation of Israel-Palestine, and map making and analysis in participant observation.  The second section in particular sound like it might ahve made an interesting addition to the city and locative digital media course I sat in on last term. H.

Digital anthropology / edited by Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller
Subject: Anthropology. If it has the word digital in the title, the odds are I'll give it a look. Granted, the title's pretty general; it's basically a mash-up of a subject and something that vaguely constitutes an approach (although I  think you'd be hard pressed to do large scaled anthropology without any digital technology these days). So it's a pretty wide remit. I can't seem to find a list of the scholars or essays involved, though, so all you get is a few broad comments on a broad subject. This book may or may not include a variety of case studies that could be of Facebook, Second Life, and Google Earth.  It may cover the topics of avatars and disability, and could address cultural differences in social networks. It may take a bold stance on the consequences of the digital (whatever that means) for politics, museums, design, and gaming communities. It may perhaps could be the most important book you'll ever read. ...The point I'm getting at is that I really prefer access to an anthology's table of contents online. Has that gotten across? H.

Greek heroes in and out of Hades / Stamia Dova
Subject: Classics.  I like that title. It makes the Greek heroes sound like addicts going in and out of rehab, only in their case, rehab is literally Hell. In the course of 280 pages and thirty (!) essays, Dova combines intertextual research and analysis (is that a fancy way of saying she read a bunch of books and thought about them together?) to explore the concept of the hero in the Iliad, the Odyssey, Bacchylides, the Symposium, and Alcestis. My snark aside, I appreciate this kind of project. I think it would require a diachronic, rather than synchronic, approach to relate all the various Greek approaches to the underworld.  That is, I think that it would take a recognition of how Greek society changed over time rather than a claim that there is one main reason all the Underworld stories unfold as they do to explain the roles the stories played in their society. But then again, I'm hardly an expert on the subject. I  could see this being a fun read, depending on the accessibility of Dova's writing style.

Spotlight on young children and technology / Amy Shillady and Lea Schoenberg Muccio, eds.
Subject: Education. Technology is another one of my buzz words, albeit not to the same degree as digital. We have another essay collection, with a pretty obvious topic. I suppose the "spotlight" in the title should have clued me in that this is more a collection of examples than a discussion of pedagogy per se--although one definitely bleeds into the other. The articles are all on ways teaches can integrate technology into the curriculum. I appreciate the effort, but I wonder if that's the way to go about it--it takes a light touch to make the technology seem like more than a gimmick. It's the educational games problem, in a slightly different form. When you're using a medium to deliver educational material that wasn't designed to be taught on that medium, it shows, generally. Shillady and Muccio include study guides with each article, which hopefully speaks towards solving that slight problem.

Gamification by design: implementing game mechanics in web and mobile apps / Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham
Subject: Engineering. In my circles, there's not a lot of trust for the concept gamification. It's basically a marketing concept for making a product seem more attractive by making people think they're having fun and playing by using it. And humanities academics are nominally opposed to marketing, unless you rebrand it as "funding," in which case, it's "more, please." I suppose Zichermann and Cunningham get some points for doing a videogame-related book and not showing a controller on the cover, which is certainly the norm. Instead, they've got monkeys, which I suppose is... some kind of intelligent design commentary?  Or maybe they're going for the argument that all mammals play. The book's starting example of gamification is convincing kids to eat broccoli, and a website that provides game-like incentives for connecting developers with marketers. Okay, I can see the value in the broccoli case, but the developer case seems to bring up a lot of what annoys me about gamification. Do we really need to gamify something that's already got a built-in motivations, i.e., that both of the groups involved here want to do their jobs so they can make money? Isn't that enough of a push? Admittedly, you could argue that capitalism itself is a kind of game, but that's a bit of a stretch; every game might be a system, but not every system is a game. And insisting that the latter needs to be the former lessens the effectiveness of both.  

Sweet tooth: a novel / Ian McEwan
Section: English.. Sadly, this is not Jeff Lemire's story about the post-apocalypse, starring a young boy with antlers. Rather, McEwan's book is about a 1970s Cold War MI5 story, where Serena Frome is recruited for Project Sweet Tooth, an attempt by the spy agency to manipulate pubic opinion by funding writers whose politics align with the government. It's kind of funny that, four hundred or so years ago, that would be less a secret government initiative and more just how things were done. Also, I'm not sure how you could pull of that sort of thing on a long term, given that governments tend to change politics on a reasonably regular basis. Frome infiltrates one such group, and falls in the love with the writer. That doesn't strike me as a particularly interesting plot, but McEwan can get a lot of his premises generally (I'm thinking Solar), so I imagine there's more here than just a thriller/romance. H.

The Devil I Know / Claire Kilroy
Section: English. Sadly, not a book on Satan's identity crisis. I seem to start a lot of the fiction commentary with the phrase "sadly." I guess I should stop judging a book by its title. Especially since that doesn't seem to work for fiction. The story here takes place in Ireland, where Tristram comes home to find himself trapped between a mysterious businessman and as grotesque builder from his childhood. And the whole thing has the "backdrop of a brewing international debt crisis."  A property development with sinister overtones begins, and Tristram realizes that all is not well. It's not a very well-reviewed book on Amazon, but the reviews it does have tend to be rather positive. I had to learn from the reviews that the book is set in 1916, which really seems like something that should come up in its description.

Machinima: the art and practice of virtual filmmaking / Phylis Johnson and Donald Pettit
Section: Film Studies. Machinima, if you haven't heard of it, is the practice of recording in-game footage and treating it like it was a film. The practice gained popularity with the Red vs. Blue series which used Halo footage  in a humorous way, but also asked questions about the strange genre that is the first person shooter; a lot of the humor came from the characters wondering what they were doing in the middle of nowhere shooting at each other, for example. Now, it's a perennial discussion point for game studies. Some developers even provide tools to allow the general public to make such films. Johnson and Pettit's book seems to  consist of two parts: part one, which describes various elements of machinima design, with commentary from its practitioners, and part two, which consists of interviews and roundtable discussions on machinima.  I'll admit, I'm not personally invested in machinima as an art form (neither my creative interests or game interests move toward film) but I do like the idea that it offers an accessible way to create, and adds to the list of things videogames can do, in this case by virtue of their power to generate virtual environments. I'd love to see a review for this book at First Person Scholar. H.

 The legend of spring-heel Jack: Victorian urban folklore and popular culture / Karl Bell
Section: folklore. This sounds like a fun book. It uses its title legend to explore how Victorian popular cultures worked. Jack moved from oral rural rumors into a metropolitan press sensation, existing in various literary and theatrical forms before ending up a nursery rhyme. As such, it draws together how various forms of Victorian culture worked together: folklorist accounts, street ballads, penny dreadfuls, journals, magazines, newspapers, comics, court accounts, autobiographies, and published reminiscences. I think I've said before that I have trouble maintaining interest with a lot of 19th century literature (sorry Jane Austen fans), but almost everything else about the period--the politics, the science, and, apparently, their equivalent of Elvis sightings and alien abductions--I find fascinating. H.

Exposing phallacy: flashing in contemporary culture / Kate Gould
Section: gender. Now THAT'S how you do a title. This book is published by Zero Books, which tend to go for the strange but eye-catching sort of subjects. Flashers, Gould points out, is not about sexiness or romance, but about forcing the spectator to confront one's genitals. And the response is rarely desire so much as objection or objectification. And in an age where softcore porn is everywhere, there is still something derogatory about the flasher, as they suffer condemnation from nearly every type of authority. I have a feeling that this may be the type of book where a little goes a long way, and I'd personally prefer to read a bit of philosophy or theory with a topic like this, but it would probably be an entertaining read, if it didn't overstay its welcome. Side note: it annoys me, in a minor way, that Zero Books are too "hip" for such populist things as, say, a table of contents.  Granted, a lot of them are too brief to bother with a table of contents, but still.  

 The Simpsons, satire, and American culture / Matthew A. Henry.
Section: General humanities. Long time readers of Bibliophile know that I've got a tendency to refer to a certain class of books as "pop" books. It's a loose definition, but generally, it refers to books that I feel were written for a general audience rather than a scholastic one. It's not wholly a derogatory term, but it's not wholly a positive one, either. While I'd never say these books are empty of value, if I was consulting something for research, I'd definitely start with the books that tend to include Foucault, Derrida, and the rest of the club before branching out. And yeshe, I guess that does suggest a sort of snobbery on my part. It's partly about being practical--you've got to maximize that research time--but there's snobbery as well. The question that this title raised in my mind is that I wonder if some subjects are inherently pop subjects. Can you do a serious, scholarly study of the Simpsons? As a pop culture specialist, I want to say yes, but I wonder if the publishing model would allow it--that is, would publishers want to deal with a book that clearly has a subject with the potential for a general, hence larger, audience, but is limited by its content? I feel like a lot of game studies books fall under this pressure, and wind up being less critical because they're too busy explaining what an "xbox" is. Henry situates the Simpsons' involvement with cultural and political issues within the larger debate regarding the culture war in America, in terms of its place in Fox Television, and its engagement with national identity, gender and sexuality, and so forth. Judging by the tone presented in the preview of the book, Henry's certainly going for the more scholarly approach. Another sure sign is the price tag: you know you're in academia when the list price for a 300 page book  is $85. So I guess the answer to my question, then, is a yes. This is a non-pop pop culture study of the Simpsons, and you can indeed do such a study.  Whether anyone, beyond the university libraries, will buy it is another question entirely. H.

And on that note, another Bibliophile comes to an end.  I think we learned something this week. Something like, if you put the subjects in alphabetical order, I won't get very far highlighting just a dozen books. It's a sad fact, but here we are.

Later Days.

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