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Games, Life Writing

First Automedia Game Club Meet-up: Path Out and Dys4ia

For this summer, I have organized a local “game club” that focuses on autobiographical – or automedia, as I prefer – games: games that tells a life narrative or disclosure about the developer’s self and/or others. The organization of the club reflects my current interest in digital life writing and automedia games. The size of the group is about 7, although people will come and go as they please. We meet once a month, trying to play at least 2 games per month. Following each meeting, I will write a brief summary of our discussions here our blog. While the group is mostly composed of academics, the discussions won’t necessarily veer that way.

 Last week was our first meeting to discuss Path Out and Dys4ia. In the beginning of the meeting, we discussed the term automedia, as defined by Julie Rak, and how it is a useful term to characterize autobiographical texts that are composed of a range of media. The term is especially pertinent to Path Out, one member pointed out, because the game includes 16-bit graphics and live, Twitch stream-y video throughout the game play.

The highlights of our Path Out discussion was the game’s interruptions of live video and its critiques of Western games and game design. Path Out is described as a “autobiographical adventure game” and it tells a life narrative of a Syrian refugee, Abdullah Karam, and his escape from Syria. The game begins with you controlling a sprite navigating through a forest. Eventually, you are caught and are killed. At that moment, Karam appears in the upper left corner of the screen in a style that is reminiscent of Twitch streams (thanks to an acute observation from a group member) and says to you, the player, “if you did this in real life, you wouldn’t survive.” We really liked this reminder that despite the game allowing the player to retry certain areas, Karam never had that chance. It was a nice way to begin an automedia game, emphasizing that this game is trying to tell a life (in a similar but different manner than Dys4ia‘s opening disclaimer).

Throughout the rest of Path Out Karam interrupts the game to critique the design of the game. He comments that the city he grew up in doesn’t look like the one depicted in the game, that the game’s depictions are clearly very Western. There’s also a time where a camel is in the streets, and when the player goes up to the camel, Karam appears and says, “Guys, really?!”, comments how the game is caught up in Western ideology, and then the camel disappears when Karam requests it. We really found this subversion interesting, establishing since Karam is collaborating with a developer – Karam is only the writer of Path Out.

What transitioned our discussion from Path Out to Dys4ia is our realization that we experienced the game slightly differently. Turns out there are different paths out in Path Out. I had experienced a version where Karam comes onto the screen to say that what is currently happen didn’t happen to him but happen to others; another member didn’t get that section or any video of that kind. So, despite Path Out being a game about Karam’s experiences, it also seems to be aiming for telling the experiences of others (which is classic relationality in autobiography studies!).

In contrast, Dys4ia makes it clear that it is own the experiences of Anna Anthropy, the author of the game. Dys4ia is about Anthropy’s experiences with Hormone Replacement Therapy. Anathropy makes it very clear in the disclaimer at the beginning of the game that the experiences depicted in the game are “my experience” and “is not meant to be representative of every trans person.” We discussed how this, like the video used in Path Out, establishes the autobiographical pact, a term in autobiography studies that defines the moment when the reader “accepts” that the story being told is true (more or less). For us, we found it interesting that Anthropy makes it clear that the experiences expressed in the game are not representative of any other trans person, but Path Out seems to incorporate others’ experiences when telling Karam’s. There are definitely reasons behind these choices, but we didn’t get too much into detail – just discussing that making this choice is one to critically analyze.

Playing Dys4ia, we enjoyed the mechanics behind the game that were connected to communicating Anathropy’s experiences with Hormone Replacement therapy. With Path Out, which was like an RPG, we couldn’t quite see how the mechanics were connected to Karam’s experiences or exactly why an RPG (the game is admittedly only one chapter finished). One member pointed out that, despite being limited to the arrow keys, the movements in Dys4ia were sometimes disorienting, and felt that this disorientation was intentional, a point I really like. We were particularly surprised when we decided to play the game together and realized that near the end of the game this series of sequences happen in the final act: at one point, you play a mini game like Breakout (or Brick Breaker for you Blackberry fans) that ends once you make a hole through out the wall, and later on in the final act, right before the ending of the game, there is a quickly changing tetris shape that heads towards the hole that you made. The hole that the player can make can be different each time – we tried it, and it worked. So, really liked this ending because although the experiences in the game are Anthropy’s experiences, this ending gestures to players who may be going through similar experiences. Thus, we found the final act’s title, “It Gets Better?” to be fitting because it reflects the #ItGetsBetter  project that started in 2010 (Dys4ia came out in 2012).

And that sums up our first discussion! Most of this is from memory and few notes jotted down after the meeting, so I’ll try to be less rambling next time. Thanks for reading!

Research Creation/Critical Media

Reflecting on DH@GUELPH, “Making at the Intersection” workshop

Although DH@Guelph finished nearly two weeks ago, last week I was busy with career centre work, a committee meeting that led to a quick but intense couple of days revising, and a teaching application. So, despite my tardiness, I’d like to reflect and share some of things that we did in the workshop I attended, “Making at the Intersection,” because it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot!

“Making at the Intersection” was led by Kim Martin, John Fink, and Liviu Pop, and the workshop discussed various strategies of bringing intersectional feminism to maker culture, which is predominately masculine, is ableist, and not a safe space for women and people of colour. We discussed various readings that discussed these issues, not only in the present but as far back as the medieval ages. On the first day, we played with various maker tech available at Guelph’s THINC Lab like Makey Makeys, an Atari Punk Console, and conductive thread. Although I had no sewing experience whatsoever, it was nice being introduced to conductive thread. Over at the Critical Media Lab, we have worked lot with Arduino or I have worked on projects with arduino micro controllers, so playing with conductive thread opened up a lot of other ways of making. Here’s my sorry attempt at sewing with conductive thread:

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For the next couple of days, we worked on thinking through collaborative projects that we could do in the workshop. Since quite a few of us were interested in Sound, we started discussing how voice assistant devices (if that’s what they’re called?) like Siri and Alexa are typically coded as a subservient white woman. Although there are limited options to change this vocal setting (my partner and I enjoy the British male voice for our Siri setting), we noted how the white woman’s voice is always default. So, we decided to make a Siri/Alexa-like chatbot for the THINC Lab that would subvert those subservient notions of what chat bots are for. Our chat bot, #NotYerBot, is only chat-based (but I think there are plans to make this voice-automated as well), but was a fun exercise in creating a bot that didn’t respond to your questions, asked you questions, and gave feminist insight, even if you didn’t asked for it. Here’s a snapshot of some of the responses:

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That’s just testing out responses to “hello,” but here’s a couple of other responses from our draft:

+ why do feminist dh?
– Why not?
– Is there any other kind?
– O, I DON’T KNOW, BC PERPETUATING A WHITE SUPREMACIST, PATRIARCHAL HEGEMONY IS NOT CONDUCIVE TO GOOD, RIGOROUS, AND, FRANKLY, INTERESTING SCHOLARSHIP. BESIDES, HUMANS NOT ONLY SHAPE TECHNOLOGY BUT, UM HELLOOOO, TECHNOLOGY ITSELF IS DEF SUBJECT FORMING: SO WE BEST KEEP OUR EYES PEELED FOR HOW POWER OPERATES WITHIN THESE SHINY DOMAINS.


+ what is interdisciplinary?
– (long pause)
– It’s like playing Twister, but each space is a different academic field! It’s a lot of fun.
– [the wikipedia’s entry on the term]

Following these conversations about unseen labour, we decided to make something that would acknowledge the kinds of unseen labour of people working within the THINC Lab (and, if installed in other places, in workspaces in general). The end product: Accounts Re-see-vable: Receipts for your unseen labour. Using a Raspberry Pi, RFID cards, and a thermal printer, we made the thermal printer generate a receipt for the unseen labour card that a participant would use. Here are some photos to give a clearer picture:

 

From the board, the participant would take a card with an unseen labour written on it. Some of the examples include “Listened Generously,” “Emotional Labour,” “Advocated for Self/Others,” and “Fielded Microaggressions and plain old aggression.” Then, participants would tap the card against the box (the raspberry pi and RFID reader), and a receipt would be generated out of the printer. The receipt would have the title of the project, what unseen labour the participant did, and a mash-up text of Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” lyrics from Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Sara Ahmed’s blog post, “Confrontation,” and Dani Beckett’s blog post, “100 Easy Ways to Make Women’s Lives More Bearable.”  We included images, too (see above), but some images struggled with being printed out. The result is a whimsical text of feminist wisdom and playfulness to comfort and motivate.

I’m really glad and grateful for being able to contribute to these projects. As much as I love these kind of workshops, it’s rare to collaborate with the entire workshop and develop two fun and functional projects to share with the rest of the summer workshops. Also, since participating in events and workshops and projects at the CML, my time in this workshop have inspired me to approach maker projects (or critical media projects) from various other angles.  “Making at the Intersection” provided me with new theoretical approaches, as well as new applications of familiar tools and new tools to use in future projects!

 

Games, Life Writing

Upcoming: Autobiographical Game Club

In the fall term last year, I proposed an autobiographical game club (like a book club but with games). But because it was the fall term and because I hadn’t really given a list of what we’d be playing/reading, it never materialized.

However, this summer, I’ve decided to re-attempt the Autobiographical game club and I’ve gotten a lot of interest. The club will be starting in June just following my CGSA presentation in Regina on May 31st, and it will be a local one (in Kitchener-Waterloo). However, feel free to “follow along”: Below is our reading list and I’ll be writing blog posts about our discussions (usually in the first week of the month). Although this will be more laid back and fun, I am hoping that this group and the discussions will get me thinking of a postdoc project since I (and my committee) are planning for my defence to be some time in the summer.

Here’s the list: I’ve tried to group them thematically and/or with readings (I’ve removed the date and times because I want this group to be local):

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Teaching

Last term gave me a teaching high (and the course evaluations only sent me higher)

So it’s been almost a month since my Superhero class has ended, and, for the most part, I feel really good about it. The class discussions were always amazing, and the work that students produced floored me every time – they gave a whole new meaning to going “above and beyond.” I also challenged myself in other areas – by sharing my mental health and having discussions of mental health in classroom, interrupting the scheduled material. I also pushed for an intersectional composition of the course reading list and approaches to the reading list, while still being accessible to first year students (or upper year students new to these concepts). And while some students wanted more “mainstream superheroes” than I included (Superman, Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, Batman, and the deaf issue of Hawkeye) or more historically canonical explorations of the hero (like Gilgamesh) , a lot of students really appreciated the focus on comics and the diversity of the material. And the criticisms I received were rather constructive, giving me a better idea of how students, and in particular STEM students, understand Humanities-related assignments and rubrics.

So, I’d just like to share a few of the comments and then comment upon them, a sort of reflection on my teaching. Let’s start of with a couple that comment on diversity of the material taught:

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I’m not sure how exactly I “subverted traditional lecturing,” but perhaps it’s the combination of including “non-traditional” works and not solely lecturing the entire class. And while the one student, echoing a few others, would like some kind of traditional works included, the benefits of including the kinds of non-traditional/canonical works outweigh the wants of canonical texts. Nevertheless, if I were to teach this course again, I may consider including one or two mythical texts. The reason why I didn’t that term was simply the fact that I’m not familiar with Gilgamesh or Beowulf, and it’s been some time since I’ve read ancient mythical origins. But overall, I was floored by these comments and others liked it – to know that the efforts I put into composing this class were appreciated by the majority of the class because it introduced them to new perspectives and texts they never heard of was so awarding.

There a few that echoed “more structured guideline for assignments,” though. In the last two years, I’ve been trying hard to include a detailed rubric and guideline, especially keeping in mind that the majority of students I do teach at Waterloo are in STEM. While the Superhero course had a few humanities students, there were a lot of students in Science. So I found their feedback instructive. Most science students said that my feedback was very instructive and helped them become better writers, but the comments in the course evaluations wanted more clearer guidelines and/or expectations:

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Throughout the past couple of years, I’ve been editing and re-editing my rubric and similar assignments, looking over others to how they construct their rubrics and their guidelines. Although this year I did my best to tie my feedback to the language of the rubric, it seemed that students had issues with the language of the rubric. So, my attempts to point to the rubric wasn’t as effective. Going forward, I’ll continue to edit and re-edit my rubrics and assignment guidelines. While it’s difficult to reach out to all learners, it doesn’t hurt to keep trying to create an inclusive rubric/guidelines.

The rest of the feedback remained largely positive, with a lot of comments reflecting on how they were able to connect my lessons to real-world issues and to their own lives:

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With these comments, and considering the evaluations in total, I am seriously touched – I cried with joy, and was so happy that the labour and vulnerability I put into the entire course was acknowledged, appreciated, and had students take something away from it. I understand that I am in a more privileged position in taking these risks, so I don’t want to over-exaggerate these accomplishments. And I also want to acknowledge the labour of my students, and how they also exhibited courage and vulnerability in engaging with the excellent discussions we had. I feel that the class was a very serendipitous event that was so fruitful and instructive both for myself and for my students. I owe my students a lot of thanks for their comments and for the productive and inclusive space that they helped me create!

Research Creation/Critical Media

Reflecting on ‘A Chording to Chance’

On Friday night April 7th, Stephen Trothen and I exhibited our project, “A Chording to Chance” at the Critical Media Lab‘s XDM Exhibition. The project’s description can be read in my last post or under Research Creation on this site. But “A Chording to Chance” can be briefly described as a participatory project that invited participants to translate Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés” into “dotsies” font, a font designed by Craig Muth to “optimize” the screen. Whereas Mallarmé’s poem experimented with the page, Muth’s font experimented with reading on the digital screen. So, “A Chording a Chance” playfully combines these two experimentations with page and screen.

But rather than have participants type out on a keyboard, Stephen and I used a “chorder keyboard” that we designed to work with and map the dotsies font. Below is the chorder keyboard (left is more or less put together; right is the keyboard disassembled):

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And here is the the dotsies mapped out on our instructional pamphlet:

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To put it one way, the chorder keyboard sequentially moved through the alphabet using a finger patten. “A” is thumb, “B” is Index, “C” is Middle, “D” is Ring, “E” is Pinky, “F” is Thumb+Index, “G” is Index+Middle, “H” is Middle+Ring,” and so on. We liked to have delete to be all five at once to kinda communicate the frustration when making a mistake. In order for people to see what they were translating, we projected a split screen: one in regular english font; the other in dotsies. Here’s the set up we had for the night (top) and split screen version of the final product of the night (bottom):

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But participants were allowed to make mistakes; the project, after all, was all up to chance. And, in the spirit of the original poem, participants could type into the next section (you can see that one line starts to cross into the dotsies section). Letting participants complete the project (rather than having us type out the poem in dotsies) was us taking a chance, rolling the dice, and seeing what we could get. It was a delight to see some people revel in their mistakes, having fun with the chorder keyboard and liking the visualization of the dotsies font, even though, if translated, was full of typos. Other participants strived for perfection: typing and editing, typing and editing over and over again. You could say we really encouraged a close and sllooooooww reading of the text. Whether participants strived for perfection or whether they let the mistakes be, participants experienced what Maurice Blanchot calls Mallarmé’s experience:

“Language has within itself the moment that hides it. It has within itself, through this power to hide itself, the force by which mediation (that which destroys immediacy) seems to have the spontaneity, the freshness, and the innocence of the origin” (Blanchot, “Mallarmé’s Experience,”40-1)

The chorder keyboard, in conjunction with the split screen fonts, was crucial in forcing attention to the mediation of language and destroying the immediacy of language. As a result, the typos and neologisms that appeared (re)introduced a spontaneity and freshness to the poem.

Overall, it was fantastic to have so many participate and have fun with the project. By the end of the night, the chorder keyboard was accidentally broken and the final word of the night was “concealing.” It was fitting, Stephen and I thought, that the project, very much about revealing the mediation of language, concealed itself by the end of the night.

And so here is the final product:

AChordingtoChance Final Translation Just Dotsies.jpg

Research Creation/Critical Media

A Chording to Chance

This Friday April 6th, Stephen Trothen and I will be showcasing our latest collaboration at the annual XDM exhibition. This year, Stephen and I have decided to take on Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés.” The exhibition runs from 6-9pm, but we hope to showcase the project on this website. Here’s the description of our project:

“Language has within itself the moment that hides it. It has within itself, through this power to hide itself, the force by which mediation (that which destroys immediacy) seems to have the spontaneity, the freshness, and the innocence of the origin.”  – Blanchot, “Mallarmé’s Experience,” Space of Literature 40-1.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” or “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance” is notorious for its experimentation with typography and graphical layout, sprawling back and forth across pages and varying in fonts and font size. The poem defamiliarizes language use, exposing the mediation of language, and challenges the limits of how poetry can look by cascading down the page and spilling over and across margins. A largely influential poem, it has inspired a visual artistic tradition of translations that explore or highlight the layout and form of the poem while suppressing its content (See Marcel Broodthaer’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (1969) to Eric Zboya’s At the Heart of a Shipwreck (2013) and Derek Beulieu’s “Tattered Sails” (2018) and “Un Coup de Des” (2017)). Our work, entitled “A Chording to Chance” builds upon this tradition of transforming and translating Mallarmé’s poem but within a digital context that attempts to highlight the visual aspects of the poem while maintaining semantic meaning in a way that (potentially) both distorts and enhances meaning through translation into a digital typeface.  

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“A Chording to Chance” makes use of an original chorder keyboard that has been designed to work with the “Dotsie” font, a font designed by Craig Muth in 2012 to save space and optimize typeface for digital screens by rendering letters into blacked-out strips and, consequently, words into pixelated icons for faster reading time and a condensed use of the page. During exhibition, participants will be asked to use the keyboard to translate the poem into Dotsies. Our project plays with Mallarmé’s experientation with the page and Muth’s experimental optimization of the screen. As well, by having participants use a keyboard that is mapped directly to the visual output – e.g. a letter that requires two pixelated blocks is typed with a simultaneous press of the first two keys on the keyboard, etc – invites them to reflect on how interface design choices can overtake, or perhaps supersede, understanding in the act of transcribing. Moreover, participants’ interaction in constructing the poem will hit the “wall” of language’s mediation; no longer “immediate,” the veil of language’s mediation is lifted as participants work through writing the poem. Participants will not be instructed where to begin translation, but a marker will be placed in the book where the last participant finished. The end-product (after the exhibition closes) will be posted online, as well as a translation of the Dotsies poem back into English.

In this way, the intended understanding of the text, as well the rendered output, will be left to chance and placed in the hands of the translators.

Teaching

Discussing Mental Health in the Classroom

Last week, I did something that was very difficult for me. And even writing about it is challenging for me, so I feel this post will be short and/or not articulated well. But here we go. Last week, in class, I addressed the recent suicide on Waterloo’s campus, opened up about my own mental health history, and discussed with the class about mental health in relation to campus and strategies to manage and/or alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.

It took me over a week to do this. And while I don’t like excuses, here’s what I was going through: When the news of the suicide happened, I was re-playing Life is Strange because I was teaching it the following week. And in Life is Strange, a student, depending on your actions in the game, commits suicide by jumping off of a residence building. In my play-through of Life is Strange, the student did die and I had to put the controller down and step away. As an instructor, I was deeply concerned with how this may trigger students, especially with the recent suicide. Although I did give out warnings to my students, the timing of playing this game was not good. But I also didn’t want to not talk about it, because I didn’t want to create a stigma around mental health issues. But as a person, I was also triggered by the event because I had a friend last semester commit suicide (they were not a student). I was conflicted, wasn’t thinking straight, and paralyzed in moving on with everything as normal.

On the Monday lecture, my anxiety was high. And somewhere in the lecture, I opened up about my friend because I realized I couldn’t talk about Kate, the character in Life is Strange who commits suicide. Throughout the rest of the lecture, I rambled, I got emotional, and I can tell that the atmosphere in the room got really heavy. So, on Wednesday, I decided that I needed to address the recent suicide on campus and to just talk about mental health, whether in relation to the game or to the culture on campus or to mental health in general.

And Wednesday happened. After a group presentation, I sat down and apologized to the class for not, as their instructor, addressing the recent suicide on campus and reminding them that my class is meant to be a safe and accommodating space (something I open every class with in the beginning of the term). I then opened up to the class about my mental health history, something I do in private one-on-ones with students who come to me but hardly in front of the whole class. And I explained why I delayed in addressing the suicide, though it shouldn’t be considered an excuse. We then just talked, first about campus culture and how certain aspects of campus culture contributes to high levels of stress and depression and anxiety. And then, students started sharing how they manage their stress levels, or how they handled grieving, or how they managed their depression and/or anxiety. No one got into specifics, but they still shared these strategies of managing day-to-day life and their workloads.

It honestly was the most beautiful moments in my teaching history.

Afterwards, I got a number of emails thanking me or some students came to my office hours to thank me for that class. And to my surprise, I was the only one of their lecturers that addressed the recent suicide. I realize, however, that I am in a privileged position as a white, CIS male, and that not everyone can open up about their mental health to the class. It was a very scary thing to do, and I almost didn’t do it. So, I realize and respect others who may not have addressed the suicide in their classes for their own personal reasons, and I hope students understand that point. Students did, however, express frustration that their classes went on as if what was happening out in the world wasn’t happening or didn’t have any influence in the university. Their frustration (and the confusion around this) is completely valid as well.

Moving forward, this has really made me think of ways in which my syllabus can communicate the safety and accommodation that make students feel comfortable in my classroom. It has also got me thinking of how to approach and teach texts that deal with mental health (amongst other topics that can trigger students). I’m glad that my students reached out to me to let me know I did the right thing, but I think there is more than can be done in the structuring of the course, its texts, and the assignments to make students always aware that my classroom is a safe and accommodating space. Of course, as of right now, this falls on the instructor, which is labour-intensive and exhaustive. So I am looking forward to future support that will be given (there are talks) and continuing listening to students.

 

 

Games, Life Writing, Photography

Playing w/ Photos: Thinking Through “Fun-tography”

So, photography has been on my mind a lot as of lately. I’m currently an RA for Dr. Aimée Morrison, and I’ve been researching into family albums and other photography-related research for her work. This has been the bulk of my photography submersion. But I’ve also been re-playing Life is Strange for my Superhero course, and of course photography plays a significant (and sinister) role in that game, both in the content of the game and in the play mechanics of the game (all of the achievements besides completing the episodes are related to taking certain photos throughout the game, a series of achievements that coax you into exploring the game for that perfect shot). This reminded me of another photography-based game I’ve been meaning to re-play: Beyond Good and Evil. But what’s been on my mind is the Game Boy Camera, since I had my students do a group presentation on it one week in my Digital Lives class.

I have an opportunity to prepare a small media archaeological talk on the Game Boy Camera (GBC), tying in the talk to the theme of “rituals.” I’ve decided on thinking through the “fun-tography” campaign of the GBC, and the rituals of “fun-tography” in photography. Although a mentor was quick to note that Huizinga associates ritual with play, I’m still interested in the concept of “playing” with photography and photography’s association with “fun” and “play” rather than professional/studio photography.  Here’s the Huizinga quote: ““The ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play, particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world.”

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The GBC certainly takes the GBC photography and its photographed subjects to another world: pictures that users take are incorporated into the games provided in the GBC cartridge, similar to the way that Miis (a character designed by the player, to presumably look like “me,” the user)  can be used in Nintendo’s latter couple of consoles to play in games.

Still, I’m hesitant to pin “fun-tography” with “transporting to another world.” So, I decided to see if the first affordable Kodak film advertised fun, and I wanted to see what that fun looked like. Below are a couple of ads of the Kodak Brownie, launched in 1900.

“Play” and “fun” in these ads do appear right from the get-go. In fact, the Brownie, in these ads, is advertised as a toy for “boys and girls” and can bring some delight and pleasure to adults, too. But the “fun” and “play” in these ads refer to either capturing play or having fun photo-biographically indexing the world. At least for me, it seems that the play with photography in these ads is not “transporting” people to another world, but rather strengthens their relationship to reality.

But the other kind of “play” that GBC offers is drawing on your photos or placing stickers on them. These features immediately recall Snapchat, but I also stumbled upon an excellent chapter in Digital Snaps: “Play, Process and Materiality in Japanese Purikura Photography” by Mette Sandbye. I’m looking forward to reading this later this morning because  Purikura photography is, from what I read from the abstract, photo booth photography, and it had me wondering if the GBC is like or inspired by or a precursor to Purikura photography. Because the GBC feels very photo booth-like.

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But in my cautiousness to attribute “writing on/playing with” photos with new digital tech, I did look into the ability to write on/play with the photos. And hey, that was the Kodak Autographic. Released in the 1920s but discontinued in the ’30s because of poor sales, the Autographic afford users the ability to write on their negatives, which either could be erased or kept in the photos. This feature was mostly for documentary sake, especially when trying to create a photo album and you wanted to maintain a sort of continuity. But I haven’t come across any drawings on photo negatives YET. It would be a delight to see. Either way, the playing and writing on photos, again, don’t quite transport users to another world.

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So, is there a ritual of “fun-tography” that can be traced through “cuts” in photography’s history? I think so. I still have to define what “ritual” means, of which I have a handy set of definitions from Ronald Grime’s The Craft of Ritual Studies that I need to sift through and pin down a definition. And I need to take care around the definition of “play” as well. So here’s hoping I conjure up an abstract by the end of the day.

The Dissertation

Discovering the “Limits of Critique”

There are some people that are upset with the characterization of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. The common thing I hear is that Luke just wouldn’t become so cynical; he wouldn’t lose hope; he wouldn’t become a skeptic; he just wouldn’t go that dark. With friends, I point out that I know of people (and they probably do, too) who have done a complete 180 and I’m like “how did they go from that to this?” Life happens. But also I like to think that Luke just gave into the popular mode of hermeneutics of the 20th century: suspicious reading.

I’ve been reading Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, and I couldn’t help but think of our old friend Luke. The book was recommended to me by my supervisor, amongst a couple of other readings, because of a comment from one of my dissertation committee members. The comment noted that my critique of online reading group blogs’ posts and comments weren’t critically interesting; that is, my interpretation did not dig into what was being said, didn’t go against the grain and search for other meanings. It took me some time and some discussion with my supervisor, but the comment was largely pointing out that my work was descriptive rather than prescriptive.

So with Heather Love’s essay, “Thin Description, Close Reading” and Felski’s book, I’ve been gathering resources to reassure my committee member (and myself) that descriptive scholarly work is critically interesting, it’s just not the same kind of criticism that appears elsewhere in my dissertation or what is traditionally accepted as proper criticism. As Felski points out, we tend to assume that there is only one kind of criticism:

“The task of the social critic is to reverse the falsifications of everyday thought, to “unconceal” what has been concealed, to bring into daylight what has languished in deep shadow. Meaning can be retrieved only after arduous effort; it must be wrested from the text, rather than gleaned from the text.” (31)

My problem that isn’t a problem is that I’m gleaning. But this kind of criticism does more than that – it’s also an ethical approach to studying peoples’ writings on the internet. The blog posts and comments I study aren’t written like modernist haikus; in many cases, they are written at face-value. To treat these texts with suspicion would put you in a weird power-imbalance; suspiciously reading these comments would turn me into an authority figure that imposes meaning on what is being said. It would cast my approach with distrust:

“In this sense, suspicion is driven by conflicting aims. On the one hand, we distrust someone or something—and are tempted to steer clear of a potential source of danger. On the other hand, we are also compelled to keep a close eye on what bothers us, so as to prepare for the eventuality of an attack. Know thine enemy!” (38)

Luke, as a teacher and leader of school, as someone who knows how to read the signs (he says something similar in the movie), seems to have adopted suspicious reading and fell victim to it. He went beyond reading and interpreting the Jedi texts; he started imposing meanings onto his students and their actions. He thought he knew his enemy. And in a way, his suspicious reading of Ben Solo made him that enemy, eventually. Luke was overcome by what Felski, riffing off Bruno Latour, may call a culture of suspicion:

“When it comes to dealing with urgent social and ecological problems, we are witnessing what looks like an excess of distrust rather than a surplus of belief.” (45)

It’s no wonder that the film ends with a disavowal of suspicion, embracing belief and hope and some canonical book burning instead.

It’s not that suspicious reading is bad, it’s just that it doesn’t always have to be the only proper method of critique. The Limits of Critique, so far, demonstrates there is more than suspicious reading. I’ve yet to finish the book, though I know she proposes an Actor-Network Theory (ANT) model of criticism that I’m interested in.

But until then, I’ll be keeping a good balance 😉 of suspicious reading and thin description.

(Late)Postmodernism, The Dissertation

Revisions, defining terms, and research discoveries during pleasure reading

It’s taken me two weeks, but I think I’ve gotten down the rhythm of this new semester. The semester began early (January 3rd), so prepping for classes was hard when trying to enjoy the one week of the holidays. But I’m caught up, the class has been off to a great start, and I’m addressing comments from a committee member, doing research to address those comments, and doing some additional research and reading.

In my dissertation, I’ve been caught with throwing in “neoliberal” and not defining the term and how it might fit in with my chapter on Wallace and the techno-determinism/libertarianism of the 90’s cyberenthusiasts. It’s funny, when I think about it, how often people joke that academics just throw in neoliberal without defining it or advise against just dropping “neoliberal” in an essay, chapter, etc, but no one, throughout my entire education, has pointed me to resources defining the term, and the nuances of neoliberalism: how it affects race, class, and gender. Instead, I was left with a vague notion of the term and advice that discouraged me from using it (and thus from researching into it).

So I’ve picked up Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States, specifically their chapter on “Colorblindness, Neoliberalism, and Obama.” I’m also returning to N. Katherine Hayle’s How We Became Posthuman, in which she aligns the disembodiment rhetoric of many cyberenthusiasts with the liberal-individualist possessive individualism (which is rooted in neoliberalism, or so my other research across interviews and articles and good old wikipedia indicate). It’s a start, and it’s helping me articulate some arguments, make some connections, and clarify my understandings of the technoculture of America’s 1990s/2000s. So, it’s about time I finally started doing some digging into this concept and making an effort of concretizing my terms.

And over the break, I read a couple books for pleasure that piqued my interest in the ways that they kinda “line up” thematically. While different in its contents and subject matter, Martha Southgate’s Third Girl From the Left and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me both share a critical examination of how celebrity culture, hollywood, and the image-based culture of late 20th century America shape conceptions of the self. While I am still reading Look at Me, the protagonist is a model, who gets into an accident and re-emerges from surgery as unrecognizable to other people. Throughout the novel, she identifies the “shadow self” of people, the kind of self that everybody hides from the public view; for the protagonist, everybody lies all of the time, and everybody hides behind an image that they fashion for others to see. So, while still early on, Egan explores the implications of an image-obsessed culture on notions of the self and its relation to others. How deep this will go is yet to be seen, but I’m enjoying the novel so far.

Southgate’s Third From the Left follows three narrative arcs, but the main two arcs are: 1) a black actress that played as an extra in many blaxploitation films and 2) her daughter, and her career path in film and TV industry as a film maker/camera person. I loved this novel, as it demonstrates the ways in which black actors and black filmmakers have to thrive in an industry dominated by white supremacy; how blaxploitation films were dominated by a “white gaze,” as they were filmed and produced by white people (and so the funds went mostly straight to those white people). And the second arc illuminates the systemic difficulties in which black women face in becoming a director. While the novel hints that black male directors are getting jobs, there’s a scene in particular where the woman’s career is harmed by the errors of a black male friend, who went on to become a successful director, whereas she became a cameraperson on Law & Order and had almost given up on filmmaking (the end of the novel is ambiguous). I couldn’t help but think of the recent discussion in regards to the Golden Globes Director category and Natalie Portman’s comment, as well as the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag from a couple years back.

I’m still trying to suss out details and connections, as both these novels are really sticking with me. But I love it when you read two books back to back, and without intending to, they end up sharing something in common, something that you can work with. These books may have started off as just for pleasure, but they may soon become part of my research on American contemporary lit.