Saturday, July 30, 2011

Maybe it's my soulful eyes

I do mean to return to my scheduled academic discussion soon but... well, it's the long weekend. Let's take our time. Specifically, let's discuss this piece of spam I received today:

Subject: Hello Beautiful


I am looking for someone intelligent, ambitious, successful and not afraid of a challenge in a relationship. My ideal partner is very
attractive and has the maturity and self-confidence.

I'm looking for someone who considers herself extraordinary and wants the same. Someone educated, successful and ambitious and looking for a challenge in life
Sgt Larry Wayne

There are several questions that arise. Do I have the maturity? What list has my email address been put on? Does Mark Henry know my blog is authored by a teenage girl between 18 and 25 years old? (Update: according to, I am no longer a teenage girl, but a logical and analytical type. The plebians go on to say that I may appear "arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what you are talking about." Honestly, I don't know why I keep going to the proles for an opinion.) Why the repetition of "ambitious," "successful," and "challenge," but not "intelligent" or educated? What is the connection between CEO Mark Henry and Sgt Larry Wayne? Are they one and the same? Is it a pseudonym? Or are they two separate people? And if they are two separate people, exactly what sort of a relationship are they propositioning? What kind of a girl do they think I am?

So many questions. So few answers. Such is life.

Later Days.

Addendum: And no, it isn't entirely lost on me that I'm interrupting a series on academic professionalism to discuss some spam guy hitting on me. This is where that "deliberate choice to engage personal and professional" thing comes in.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Quotations: My Mom Thinks I'm Cool

"Lonely people tend to report being dissatisfied with their relationships and are often cynical, rejecting, bored, and depressed. They also have difficulty making friends, engaging in conversations, getting involved in social activities, and dating (Chelune, Sultan, & William 1980; W. H. Jones, Hobbs, & Hockenbury 1982). Their tendency to engage in minimal self-disclosure and be unresponsive to conversational partners often results in poor interactions that are unrewarding for both partners, which leads lonely individuals to feel dissatisfied with their relationships (McAdams, 1989). Both relationship dissatisfaction and difficulty with social behaviors may lead lonely people to seek online relationships."-- Helene M. Lawson, Kira Leck, "Dynamics of Internet Dating."

Hear that, folks? My constant pleas for comments are desperate cries for help that fall on deaf ears. I don't know how you live with yourselves. Seriously, though, what really struck me about this quotation was the number of studies (granted, outdated studies) that were conducted; those have to be some of the most depressing studies ever, both for the conductors and participants. I mean, it's one thing to suspect that you're conversationally awkward and lonely, but to have it empirically proven seems like salt in the wound.

Later Days.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Academic Thoughts II: The Conference

Regular readers probably expected that since the first post in this series ended with the statement that it would be continued the next day, that probably meant a delay of at least the weekend. What was perhaps less expected is that the declared topic--"What's Wrong with Current Videogame Scholarship and How the Solution is Me and Only Me (I'm paraphrasing)"--quickly veered into a discussion on the blog as a forum for academic promotion. Well, I still want to talk about videogame scholarship, but I think we'll take the scenic route, which means today is a leisurely stroll through the gently lolling (LOLing?) hills of the academic conference.

As my frequently perused media sites are currently bombarding me with information regarding the just-concluded San Diego Comic Con, it occurs to me that an academic conference is similar to comic book convention, much as both sets of attendants would be loathe to admit it. Both events provide a justification for a large number of people with shared interests to congregate together. Both also provide justification for travel, and a structured event around which to plan aforementioned congregations. And both blur the line between the line between serious business and spirited play (the spirited play part being one of the guilty secrets of the academic conference; if you doubt its presence, try frequenting the hotel bar of a conference in progress). Of course, there are significant differences, with two big ones in particular. First, in general, the academic conference sides more towards the serious business, and the comic con sides more towards play. And second, the comic con is based rather highly on an exchange of finance, whereas the primary currency at the academic conference is (ideally) the idea.

Let's expand on that first point. I've been to quite a few conferences at this point, of varying sizes. Of larger conferences, I've delivered papers at the Society for Science, Literature, and the Arts Annual Conference, and at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. And I've participated at a number of smaller conferences, including most recently, the aforementioned graduate conference in Ottawa on Digital Play and Narrative. But there's been no conference that quite drove home to me the line between play and business like my first big conference, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts 2007 (possibly 2008) conference.

With its focus on fantasy literature and the presence of several notable fantasy writers, the conference blurred the fan con/ academic conference line more than most. The theme of the conference had been the sublime, and I was presenting a paper on the ecosublime, as it appears in the work of Robin Hobb and Tamora Pierce. On a personal level, it was a very odd experience for me, as it was both my first conference and a week long conference on a huge scale. It combined my research interests--I got to meet Brian Atterby, for example, a reasonably big name in fantasy theory, though I didn't recognize him until after we'd talked--and my personal interests, as I had a chance to meet and gush in a fannish manner with fantasy authors such as Guy Gavriel Kay and Stephen Donaldson. (I particularly remember a session where someone was giving a paper on the ending of Kubrick/Spielberg's AI, and the author of the book, Brian Aldiss, crashed the session to give his own opinion.)

The juxtaposition for work and play was quite explicit in my case: the conference took place in Orlando, Florida, and my parents had decided that my journey there made for a good excuse for a family vacation. And thus, while I was attending sessions on postmodernity in Resident Evil and the translation of Dungeons & Dragons into movie conventions, the rest of my family was exploring Disney World. It was also the most international conference I've ever been at, as I rubbed shoulders with people from Norway, China, and Australia. At the university I was doing my MA at, my research was definitely on the fringe of the department's specialties; it was immensely rewarding to see that other people, on a global scale, thought that the same areas were interesting and important. On a personal level, I can't think of a more ringing endorsement of the academic conference: it reminds you that you are part of a community greater than its parts.

But let's go back to the other big difference for the moment: capital vs. idea. To say that academic conferences aren't financially oriented is a bit of an untruth; there's quite a lot of money involved. There's the cost of transportation, accommodations, and food. There's the table of books set up in one of the rooms, showcasing the published works of the presenters (conference tip: try to save your academic book purchases for the last day of the conference--that's when they start getting desperate to sell.) There's even the cost of registration to attend the conference at all. But the big focus is the exchange of ideas, the paper itself and the conversations you have apart from your own panel. It's through this exchange that the purpose of the academic conference comes out: you're not selling a product, you're selling yourself.

That is, the purpose of the academic conference is to sell your professional persona to anyone who looks like they're buying. In a less crude, non-neoliberal formulation, the purpose is to forge bonds that may be of use, both in terms of developing your ideas and research, but also in terms of developing your career. Again, regular readers know that, outside of this blog wherein my personality and razor wit reign supreme, I can be somewhat reticent and retiring, but even I rarely leave a conference without at least an exchange of email addresses. For the forging of academic ties, the value of the conference can't be overstated.

And, unlike the blog, the academic conference has a definite place on the standard CV. The catch is that it's a relatively small place. No conferences at all is a small problem; a regular attendance at the right conferences is a mild boon. Note the emphasis there on "right conferences"--what conference is right for you and yours depends on your area of study. As a digital media drone specializing in video games, my attendance at anything from the SLSA to a grad conference on video games is rather justified, but if I was an 18th century specialist, it would look a little stranger, especially if I failed to have a good slate of 18th century related activities on my list.

But while the conference presence really needs to be there, it alone isn't enough. The problem with conferences is that the people reading your CV go to them too, and they thus know exactly how much effort and academic value is expended on the average conference paper. Something more is needed, and we'll get exactly what that something is--after a brief stop at the untamed wild that is the undergraduate course.

PS. I rather doubt I'm the only one with a rewarding (or at least vaguely interesting) conference story. If you've got one you'd like to share, I'm all ears.

Later Days.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Quotations: Media Empire

Just as the eighteenth-century novel was a textual apparatus generating the bourgeois personality required by mercantile colonialism (but also capable of criticizing it), and just as twentieth-century cinema and television were integral to industrial consumerism (yet screened some of its darkest deceptions), so virtual games are media constitutive of twenty-first-century global hypercapitalism and, perhaps, also of lines of exodus from it.” --Nick Dyer-Witheford & Greg de Peuter, Games of Empire.
Later Days.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Academic Thoughts

I don't have a lot of rules on this blog. This is largely because I am pretty much the only person who posts here, and I prefer to keep what rules I have unstated, so that if I do break them, at least I'm the only one who knows about it. But of the small set of rules I unofficially have, one of the firmest is "don't blog about your work." I'm not going to break that rule, but I am going to twist it around until it makes the Gordian knot look like a straight edge.

It's hardly a secret that I've been a little dissatisfied with videogame scholarship as of late. But until now, I haven't really had a target to aim at. It started when I realized it was time to get serious about my academic career. Well, actually, I realized that about a year ago was the time I should have started getting serious about my academic career. But more immediately, it was when I decided to address the familiar academic maxim "publish or perish." Aside from a co-authorship from my undergraduate math RA days, I don't have a published credit to my name. To avoid the perish then, I must embrace the publish, posthaste.

But that's easier stated pithily than done. There's a number of considerations to take into account before even attempting to publish an academic paper. First and foremost, it's not enough just to be published; you have to be published in the right place, and to a certain extent, at the right time. I've been publishing this blog for years now, and while it's not always the highest-minded piece of scholarship, the traffic that my Stiegler series brings in suggests that it's pulling its own weight in the circuits of academic discourse. And yet, it would not by any means be considered a serious academic pursuit.

Part of that is my own choice; I could very easily have constructed this as a pure academic blog, and it would, perhaps, have stood a chance of being useful for my career in the future. I also could have devoted it to a less academic discussion to videogames, and leveraged that into an entry point in that community. Or comic books, or television, or some other pop culture area. But I didn't. I chose to keep it a blog of all trades, including my own personal experiences. And I don't regret that; I believe very strongly in not artificially partitioning work and the rest of your life; I have had the rare opportunity to pursue what I enjoy in life through my work, and I think I'd be turning my back on what that means to me if I started closing things off. But while that ideal fills me with a warm and fuzzy glow, it doesn't really help fill a CV.

The other side of academic blogging, which I perhaps should have started with before I delved into a course on extreme navel gazing, is that, bluntly, no one cares. Or rather, it's significantly unimpressive to create something and publish it on your own, especially when the same self-publishing resources are available to any teenager with a gmail account and some angst to burn. In this way, the world of humanities academic discourse is like any other fandom (all right, it's not exactly the same as a fandom, but the similarities are in the field of what ): your opinion only matters if other people are talking about it. And that is the way to do it--participate in other people's online discussions, make catchy, pithy comments on other people's twitter feeds, and ask intelligent questions in email follow-ups and blog replies.

All of these activities are important, and perhaps even necessary, in cultivating good connections and word of mouth in the modern academic sphere. But at the end of the day, there's still one crucial problem: it still doesn't fill the CV.

As for what actually does fill a CV, um... tune in tomorrow! Guess what: my rant is now a series! Hurrah!

Later Days.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Public Service Announcement

I know we have a lot of the same readers, (and that publicity-wise, he's already cast his net to some fish that are a lot bigger than yours truly) but I would like to mention that a friend of mine is on Day 2 of a 4-week event, the Bureau. It's a multimedia murder mystery. It's an online mass narrative. It's even, dare I say, a game. And he's designed it to be accessible at any point, so take a look when you can. Further attempts at description on my part aren't really going to do it justice, so I recommend that you check it out for yourself; it's good stuff.

Later Days.

Monday, July 18, 2011

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude: In Sum

Last week, I embarked on a seven day experiment, where for each day, I read a hundred pages of some at least semi-scholarly work, and posted my thoughts on it afterward. They start off as quick, pithy assessments, and then, unsurprisingly, spiral out of control shortly thereafter. Here, for the record, are links to each day:

OHPoS #1 : Poetics of Space. Wherein I learn that in space, no one can hear you rhyme.
OHPoS #2: The Messanic Reduction. Wherein I learn that, no, you can't just pick up phenomenology as you go along.
OHPoS #3: Terminal Identity. Wherein I read about that Cronenberg movie with the sadistic TV programmer who caters to the worst denomination of viewers. You know, the Running Man.
OHPoS #4: Understanding Media. Wherein I assemble a veritable bevy of quotable McLuhanisms. Also, I learn things.
OHPoS#5: Shopping Towns, USA. Wherein I discover how to design a shopping mall in 1960.
OHPoS#6: You and the State. Wherein I passionately defend the politics of conservatism. Hey, I was surprised too. Also: my favorite opening tag line of the bunch.
OHPoS#7: Learning to Live with Crime. Wherein I interrogate my inner urge to burgle. (I don't really. I just wanted to use the word "burgle.")

Out of all of them, Terminal Identity was probably the most enjoyable, but Understanding Media is the one I'd most likely go back and finish. And I'd like to clarify with Terminal Identity that the reason that the argument seemed so familiar to me is a reflection of how important the text is to sci-fi studies: its echo is felt in a lot of later works, and I recognized that familiarity when I read it here, in a weird reverse resonance sort of thing that crops up frequently in scholarly stuff.

All in all, it was an interesting experiment. I think I'll keep the feature, albeit on less of a frequent rotation. It's interesting to note that while these entries often turned out to be longer than my 500 word Dragon Age week long entries, I never felt quite the same level of fatigue writing them. Perhaps it's because I was writing them more immediately after the experience, or perhaps because the actual experiences were a little more varied. I'll admit, though, that I was still ready to call it quits by the last one. A 700 page reading week takes a lot out of a guy. (And it was considerably more than that, when you add about 950 for the speed read I did of Martin's Dance with Dragons that week, and at least 100 pages of other miscellany. )

Later Days.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude #7: Learning to Live with Crime

"We need to be aware of how experience with crime often comes to us already narrated, and even how things we call facts are often rhetorically constituted at the very level of their facticity."

Today's double quinquagent paged reading is Christopher P. Wilson's Learning to Live with Crime: Crime Narrative in the Neoconservative Turn. Now, I'd really like to go quickly today. This haste isn't in any way an indictment of the book, but rather a reflection that it's Saturday, I've got other stuff to do, and on day 7, the newness of this feature, wonderful as it is, is wearing a bit thin.

Wilson starts from the position that the portrayals of crimes we see in literature and film aren't just responses to big events, or the culture of fear. Rather, they are often responses to small-scale changes in the way police forces--specifically, the American law enforcement agencies--slowly alter their day-to-day operations. In the first hundred pages of the book, he covers a few different case studies: the Witness Protection Narrative and crime reporting ala Nicholas Peleggi's Wiseguy and Peter Maas' Valachi Papers; the interrogation room as employed particularly in NYPD Blues; Social Memory and the Cold Case squad; and the opening of a chapter on Frank Abagnale, of Catch Me If You Can.

I'm not really familiar with the examples Wilson used, but his argument seems compelling enough. At various points, he notes that his own focus on the ordinary rather than the spectacle brings to mind Michel Foucault, though he claims to be more directly working with modern crime-oriented scholarship. I think an important distinction between what Wilson is doing and Foucault did was that Wilson is highlighting the system, whereas Foucault's actions could be more properly characterized as highlighting people in the context of the system. (And de Certeau moreso than Foucault for this, but never mind.) If I had to point to something I wasn't that fond of the book, it's that Wilson tends towards outline rather than argument, and often fails to fully foreground exactly what point he's arguing for a section. The topic is always clear, but it's greater implications isn't, always.

But, all in all, I thought it was a good book. I was somewhat disappointed, in that he never referred even in passing to the show The Wire. While it's another crime drama I haven't gotten around to watching yet, I've heard it described by numerous scholars as a show that's more about the process and the system than the individual officers or crimes. As such, it seems ideal for Wilson's discussion. On a similar note, I think you could do an interesting paper connecting this book's argument to Ian Bogost's discussion of procedural rhetoric, alongside an analysis of investigation-themed video games, such as the Phoenix Wright series and the recently released L.A. Noire.

Verdict: A solid, thorough case study of a few different police procedures and their consequent effects on culture at large.
Would Read the Rest: I probably would. More because the book is almost over (about another 60 pages) than because the material is incredibly spell-binding, though.

Later Days.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Quotations: That Makes it Easier to Leave, Right?

“Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users.” --Marshall McLuhan, Understanding New Media.

Even as we stand in the midst of exciting new features, it behooves us not to forget the traditions that made us great. Traditions like randomly quoting whatever catches my eye as shiny, as if I'm some sort of academic magpie. Also, I now have approximately a million McLuhan quotations, so I've got a nice stockpile to burn through.

Later Days.

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude #6: You and the State

"Indeed, there is a paradox here. Insofar as you actually use the force you threaten, you fail to get what you wanted, which was for the other person to do your bidding. If you don't use it but merely threaten it, you might succeed in that. But if the other person thinks through it, he could alternatively just refuse, and then where are you? This is the classic game theorist's situation known as 'chicken.'" --Jan Narveson

If you're having reading problems, I feel bad for you, son. I read 99 pages, plus a whole 'nother one. Hit me!

Today's book is Jan Narveson's You and the State: A Short Introduction to Political Philosophy. This reading introduces another element as of yet unseen in my series: bitter, vehement disagreement between reader and author. Essentially, Narveson's book is on the utility of the state, and whether some other models (read: anarchism and libertarianism) may be more useful, or at least open for discussion. The first hundred pages doesn't really get to this argument. What we get instead is an introduction on political philosophy, a discussion of the need for government in the face of (or sometimes, created by) those who would claim rule through brute force, a discussion of conservatism in light of the guardian state, and the first half of a run-down of classic liberalism.

For the first half of the hundred pages, my main argument with the book is also my main praise: its accessibility. I know from hard experience how easy it is to let a discussion of any philosophy, political or otherwise, get bogged down in overladen terminology and discipline-staking jargon. That Narveson avoids this jargon is to his credit; that he embraces simplicity in his prose is even more so to his credit. My problem, however, is two fold. First, and we'll deal with this complaint more fully in a moment, speaking simply sometimes lends itself to speaking broadly, and that in turn leads to overgeneralizing. Second, there's a fine line between speaking plainly and patronizing, and I think Narveson, in his commitment to the former, passes over to the latter, as evidenced by the quotation above. But really, that's a minor quibble; I imagine the book was written for an undergraduate audience, and it's ideally accessible for a first year political science class.

Where things get a little more disagreeable for this Person of Consequence is the chapter on conservatism. Again to his credit, Narverson starts off with the recognition that conservatism is a much misused word, as it refers to political parties that don't really practice it in any traditional sense, and it refers to a common use that makes it equivalent with "slow to change," which can be ascribed to virtually any political system. Rather, he defines it as any political system that forces values on its people, and the contrast is liberalism as the view that individuals are the authorities of their own good. And thus we range through the historical "conservative" leaderships: aristocracies, martial rule, hereditary aristocracy, oligarchy, rule by priests, slavery, and--here's where the trouble starts, Marxism. Basically, I disagree fully with Narveson's characterization of the problems with Marxism, and his discussion on the other side of things, the value of capitalism and the free market. Allow me to explain, in arduous, hippy-laden detail.

First the disclaimers: I don't really consider myself either a Marxist. I've read too much lit theory to ascribe to theoretical Marxism, as I find it rather boring, and I've read too much history to ascribe to Marxism as it was put into practice, as I find that rather terrifying. If you had to boil my philosophy down into a clear statement, it would be, after much hand-wringing, that each individual person has a personal and moral responsibility to help out their fellow human beings (and, sometimes, just fellow beings), or, at the very least, avoid doing anything that actively harms them. The avoidance part leads to a liberalism in social issues, and the helping part leads to a governmental system of support in other issues. So if you know of a pithy term that encapsulates both those aspects, let me know.

And now that I've poured my political heart out, and bared my socialist(?) soul, my actual complaints against Narveson are fairly mundane. He argues that Marx was wrong for three reasons. 1)The theory of value doesn't work because it's trumped by the reality of market value--that is, the market determines what work is, not the amount of labor put into it. 2) Labor is not exploitative because the worker gets something out of it. 3) The polarization of the classes never happened. Responding to Marx's claim of growing inequality, Narveson says: "Uh-huh--so say we now, as our highways are crowded with proletarians equipped with SUVs, hauling their powerboats to vacation sites, and so on. What, we must ask, went wrong (or, better, went right!)?". And later, he argues that free market is better than socialism for obvious reasons: "Twentieth-century socialist States, for example, were prize polluters, and its chiefs wholesale thieves of their citizens' money." His chief example of a model socialist being, in this case, Fidel Castro.

My problem with Marx's argument is that it is overly reductive; my problwm with Narveson's is that it magnifies the reduction and swings it the other way. Both reduce their respective cases to all-or-nothing binary cases. Yes, I'd agree with Narveson that there's no such thing as pure labor value, narrow class divide, or entirely exploitative labor. But to dismiss Marx's arguments entirely on those grounds is equally as wrong. Market value isn't the only way to value things, and some scholars, such as Negri and Hardt, have made a reasonable academic name arguing for other models.
To use the American middle class as evidence that there is no class divide or exploitation of workers is a stretched comparison at best, and disingenuous at worst. First, exploitation CAN still take place even if the worker is apparently getting what they immediately desire out of the situation; one of the core tenets of ideology is that it masks the true state of affairs from those who are entrenched in it. Second, owning a powerboat and SUV is still something of a class divide if your boss owns a half dozen Corvettes and a private yacht. More to the point, Narveson is ignoring the evidence that this middle class is steadily shrinking, and that the appearance of wealth and the reality of wealth are two different things, as anyone with a mortgage can tell you. Finally, his example also elides the fact that exploitation and class divide often moves to where the upper class folk don't have to look at it, overseas in factories with subhuman work conditions and lax labor laws.

And don't get me started on the problems of using Castro as a socialist leader. Suffice to say, as Naverson himself acknowledges, no market is entirely a free market. Placing socialism and capitalism as binary opposites is a false comparison; they're more two ends of a spectrum, with the actual market fluctuating between the two ends.

I'll fully admit that what I don't know about political theory can fill entire libraries (and, in fact, does). But Narveson's book, as it stands at 100 pages, ignores as many questions as it answers.

Verdict: It's certainly a good book for generating political discussion; your personal preference for it will depend largely on your stance towards his version of liberalism.

Would read the rest?: I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I'm not too eager to continue on a book that I disagree with on so many levels. But at the same time, I am curious to see exactly where Narveson's argument is going, and I believe that pursuing things you feel strongly about is an important part of intellectual development, whether you're pursuing something you agree with or not. But I should probably focus on things more directly related to my subject area first.

Final Word: I feel like "You and the State" should be the title for a buddy comedy.

Later Days.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude #5: Shopping Towns USA

"No democratic society can flourish without law and order which, when appleid to the physical environment, necessitates planning. In a complex and highly mechanized society environmental planning safeguards the basic human rights. By providing the best conditions for physical and mental health, it protects life. By establishing barriers against anarchy and the infringements of hostile natural and man-made forces, it protects liberty. By the creation of a humane environment it invites and encourages the pursuit of happiness." --Victor Gruen and Larry Smith

Today's century of scribbling is Shopping Towns USA: The Planning of Shopping Centers by Victor Gruen and Larry Smith. Published in 1960, the book is, essentially, a how-to guide for planning a mall. The first hundred pages cover the prerequisite elements: the knowledge the developer needs, choosing the location and site, getting the zoning permits, acquiring the tenants, and financing the affair. The second part, planning, I only read up to the planning team, the planning schedule, desinging the site, and a little bit of planning the surrounding areas.

I'll be honest: this book wasn't quite what I'd hoped for. What attracted me to this book wasn't so much its subject as its first author, Victor Gruen. For those not intimately versed in the history of modern commercial architecture (and really, if you're not, then what have you been doing with your life?) Victor Gruin is the architect responsible for creating the modern mall, or at least popularizing its use in the USA. A search of the all-knowing wikipedia told me that Gruen was a committed socialist until moving to the States, and I thought that this background made an odd fit for the creation of a site destined to be associated with the worst of American consumerism and capitalist consumption. Thus, any book he wrote on design, I reasoned, would probably be an interesting read.

Sadly, it wasn't quite to be. Mostly, the disconnect is that I was looking for something theoretical, whereas Gruin and his partner, Smith (an economist), were much more interested in creating a practical model. Thus, we have chapters on the basic components needed to create a shopping center to begin with. Some of the principles are interesting enough. They emphasize unity and communication between the principal designers, the architect, the entrepreneur, and the real estate developer. And they are very big on designing the building so that people are forced to leave their cars when traveling from store to store. After all, they say, people in cars aren't buyers; pedestrians are buyers. But all in all, it's not what interests me in the subject of spatial design.

The introduction is a little more interesting, in terms of theoretical fodder. Gruin and Smith see the shopping center not only as a source of commerce, but also as a source of community, and a response to decentralization of cities, and suburbanization in particular. The effect of the suburb, they argue, is to make people more and more remote, and the shopping center fixes that problem by bringing people together. Their model for comparison is the Greek market, or agora. And, in fact, it reminds me of yesterday's reading, from McLuhan. At one point, he describes an anthropology case where an African village argued for the removal of indoor piping; they didn't like the way it stopped them from gathering at the communal well. At the same time, I don't think McLuhan would have supported Gruin's model; as he says a few times, you don't respond to present situations by borrowing ideas from the past.

From an upbringing in rural Saskatchewan, I have a different take on malls than most of you city-slicker types. The closest mall was a half-hour drive away, and it paled in comparison to the malls another hour drive away in Saskatoon. As I grew up, I had the strange privilege of watching store after store in that mall get replaced by temporary outlets, lower priced commodities, or, more commonly, nothing at all. Walking through a mall on its way to closure is an eery experience. There's a definite tie between community pride and the local mall (also national pride, as shown in the quotation above), and there's a strange feeling when going through a nearly collapsed mall that the community has failed. That's when you realize just how inoculated we are in capitalist ideology, that even the site of failed commerce creates a sense of anxiety. It's a somewhat ridiculous response, given that the real community businesses are usually single-shop stores located elsewhere, but when they go bust, it's just a single business going down. When the mall goes, it's an entire network that's gone. But I suppose malls in general are going down everywhere, as a result of decentralization and electronic commerce, and so forth. I think it's a little different in a small town, though, because it's easier to see the decline of the entire area in the fall of a business.

Not that the dilapidated mall I'm referring to signaled the fall of this town, though. I think I'm just rambling a bit, so I'll switch tracks.

The book came to my attention when a video game book I was reading--"Die Tryin'" by Derek A. Burrill--had a chapter on the arcade and its relation to the mall, with Gruen mentioned as the founding force of mall activity. The death of the arcade is an often cited historical point in video game history, as it represents the shift from communal gaming happening in public to communal gaming online. But that's not what occurred to me when reading this book. Rather, my mind was drawn more to video games that featured malls, namely the Dead Rising series. I've talked about them before, so I won't do so here, but what really struck me was the similarities and differences in designing a real world commerce space and designing a video game space--I'm not the first to come to this revelation, but spatial design in video games is really a wide open field.

Notice how all discussions lead back to my research interests? That's the sign of an academic, all right.

Verdict: If you're looking for a guide on how to design a shopping center situated in the economic reality of 1960s America, this is the first place you should go. If you're looking for a guide on how to design a shopping center for 2010s America, try Amazon.

Would Read the Rest?: Maybe the case studies and epilogue. Otherwise, I'd be better off reading one of the biographies on Gruen, or maybe seeing if he wrote any retrospective books later in his career.

Later Days.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude #4: Understanding Media

“The price of eternal vigilance is indifference.”

This Wednesday's hecto-reading is Marshall McLuhan's seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It is, to your average media scholar, either the single most important book in the entire corpus, or a book you you occasionally pull random quotations from and mean to read someday, honest. I'm rather in the latter camp, and it's been admittedly one of the more glaring omissions in my scholarly readings. Until today, that is.

The first hundred pages of McLuhan's book gets you through section 1, wherein he outlines his basic ideas, and a good ways into section II, wherein he outlines a few comments on every single form of media he can think of. My Section II reading covered the spoken word, the written word, and half a discussion on roads. Section I can be very roughly summed up in his three main ideas: the difference between hot and cold media, the oft-quoted sentiment that "the medium is the message" and the idea that our media--and our technologies--are ourselves. And if that last bit sounds a little Stieglerian to the audience, then I'd have to agree. That's what struck me first about the book: just how much modern media scholars are in debt to him, particularly Stiegler (for the technics = human equivalence), Kittler (for the emphasis on literacy), and Virillio (for connections between speed, technology, and power). And even if it's not a debt, the sheer frequency of parallel discussions means that anyone who studies these scholars really needs to consider McLuhan as well.

The other thing I noticed about McLuhan is how quotable he is, and how compact each of his paragraphs are. I found something on just about every page worth quoting. And even if it didn't make any sense, especially out of context, it still seemed worth noting: "
The Roman solider was a man with a spade" (72). "Much of it was by pack animal--woman being the first pack animal" (93). “Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plan world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.” (46) And each paragraph is, generally speaking, an example of good writing. I forcibly try to drill into the heads of my first years that they should adopt the model of the quotation sandwich in essay writing:make a claim, introduce a quotation to justify the claim, then follow up with the explanation of how the quotation justified the claim. McLuhan follows the same pattern, if you replace "quotation" with "idea," and it works very well.

Sadly, it's not all great news. McLuhan has a tendency to jump around a lot, and leave ideas rather undeveloped. Essentially, to borrow his own terminology, his writing is a cool medium. (McLuhan crash course: a "hot" medium is one that focuses on limiting experience to a single sense and allows little in the way of participation; a "cool" medium is one that focuses on a more disperse experience, and leaves lots of room for interpretation and participation. For the longest time, I couldn't remember that distinction, largely because it's based on meanings of "hot" and "cool" in regards to culture that were a lot more precisely defined than what we now use them for; ironically, the terms "hot" has become cool.) That means there's a lot of work for a dedicated scholar to do, but it's a double-edged sword, which I think may be one of the reasons why he gets short shrift. Essentially, you can either draw out the full meaning of one of hist statements, which involve patching together a fairly disparate argument with strange parallels and connections sprinkled throughout his books at large, or you can reduce the statement into a semi-useful aphorism and move on--most people seem to prefer the latter.

Further, he does have a tendency to indulge in generalization, generalization that occasionally tends towards hyperbole. Personally, I'm a little suspicious of his term "artist." For McLuhan, the artist is anyone who draws attention to the way people engage with their media. And he seems to acknowledge, at times, that anyone can be an artist: “If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advanced knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists?” (66)
. At the same time, though, I can't shake the feeling that there's something elitist in the notion that society, the dormant masses, are complacently waiting for these artists to come save them. But I'm willing to recognize that's my own (mis)interpretation. The larger charge of hyperbole still stands: “The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity.”

Does it, Mr. McLuhan? Is that what it promises? Thank goodness; I can't understand why universal understanding has taken so long.

Verdict: His hyperbole aside, this is the most important book in history of media since Gutenberg invented the printing press. (Hey, I said *his* hyperbole aside. Mine's still allowed.)

Would Read the Rest?: Absolutely. In fact, I probably should have read it long before now.

Addendum: I wanted to be sure to include this quotation:“Lack of homogeneity in speed of information movement creates diversity of patterns in organization" (91). I mention it because, in one of life's odd serendipitous sync-ups, it rather exactly describes the dispersal of information and the resulting disruptions of plans that characterize much of the first 400 pages of
A Dance with Dragons, the latest book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which I have been reading ferociously since... um, yesterday. 'S good.

Later Days.