Showing posts with label academic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label academic. Show all posts

Monday, December 20, 2021

An Object of Scorn


Affixed to the altar before the apse was the cross. It’s edges were frayed, roughly hewn from quarter sawn timber long ago. The reclaimed piece was swollen and pocked with burls. Striations of discoloration, wrapping around the trunk, intimated the shape of a hobbled man, or a rot in the wood. Well-lit by the clerestory above the chancel, the cross was positioned prominently, as if basking. The carpenter had placed the cross there, shunting it into a notch in the ground, embroidered with mosaic tile. He cursed the splinters collected by his hands. 

Over time, the basilica changed many hands, each flock with their own vice and preference. For a century or so, the cross absorbed bitterness and contention. In-fighting broke out across the aisles, until a meeting was convened to determine the spirit of their creed and what they said about their Lord. Most were satisfied by the outcome. At the end of it, the rich young ruler who ordered the meeting stepped forward and placed a thoughtful hand upon the hardened exterior, sensing great things ahead. 

Not soon after, it was stained with blood. Buckets of coagulated sanguine absorbed into the sword-gouged trunk, bright red, before fading to purple and blue. Suffering abounded in the lands choked with smoke and ash, until a pragmatic flock emerged, resourceful enough to stifle the sickness of violence that seemed to infect the sullen, stagnant air. The cross was crowned with temporal power by the rich young ruler, but the gilded crown bore the likeness of a bad forgery.  

New edicts were established regarding what the cross could and could not be. It took the aspect of many things. The cross was showered with wealth and abundance. Even the soft gold coins withered the cross’ face, bruising and softening the wood. Two attendants fought over the cross, for a time, until they conceded, finally, to a stalemate. Each mutually regarded one another with hate, their flocks diverging. They sat apart from one another, on either end of the cross. It stood between the camps, buffeted by anger and distain. After a time, the flocks relented, weary of the conflict, abandoning the refuse of entrails and sinew they had draped over the arms of the cross. The dawning light, emerging through the open portal in the narthex, exposed the rot. And members of both flocks returned to clean it as best they could.  

The cross still stands there now, black as charcoal and steeped with dried blood. Some still approach, as if recognizing an old friend. Those that stay, marvel for a time and consider the carpenter that left it so many years ago. Those that depart, do so quickly, though not before dressing it in fashionable clothing, berating it, and covering it with semen and feces. The weight of shackles, handcuffs, bandoliers, braids of Ethernet cable, fascist flags dipped in gasoline, drape around its neck like a noose. There, on the altar, it stands: objectified by filth, defeated. 

Yet, despite all this, the flock heaps their burdens upon it willingly.  And they depart, each one, with a spring in their step.  


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Talking with My Dad about Fact-Checking


My dad and my brother at a BBQ back in 2013.

The other day I was emailing my dad an article that The New York Times put out which fact checked the final presidential debate from this past week. My dad's response, was more or less what I expected:

The NY Times is long known to be a left of center publication.  Hence their reporting reflects their acknowledged philosophic points of view.  The Times “fact checkers" are only preaching to the choir. The “fact checkers” are hired by the Times.  Would these folks opine contrary to the Times editorial board and expect to remain employed?  Do you actually believe the Times would publish opinions that are not congruent with the established editorial opinions of the paper?  It would be the similar if I sent you an article from the “Federalist” or from Fox News.  Both data sources have an ax to grind.  

My dad is very conservative, having been a devotee of Rush Limbaugh and Dr. James Dobson for most of his adult life, although the above was much softer than his usual assessment of the current political climate. What I found interesting was his position: the relationship between a paper's policy bias and its inherent "truthfulness" changes depending on the observer's own political alignment. Someone who is "liberal" would praise the Times for its desire to "uncover the truth;" whereas, someone who is "conservative" would cynically claim that the fact checkers were hired in bad faith. (I mention these in quotes to emphasize the relative absurdity each designation has attracted over the past few decades.) Of course, the reality is somewhere in the middling grayness. For instance, I would opine that most of what Fox News puts out on their network are news stories with an original spirit of truth, but filtered through a lens that confirms the biases of their viewership. The original story may actually be factual, but the interpretation detracts from the "truthfulness" of the presented story, to such a degree that the final result is no longer true. I think this goes the same for other news outlets on the left side of the isle, though to a lesser degree. In this instance, the final story still retains the original "truthfulness," but now is veneered with a layer of interpretation that deviates from the original meaning of the story. 

To illustrate the ways this can happen, I have prepared an example meant to be an objective description (hypothetical of course) of events. (Remember though, true objectivity is impossible, regardless of viewpoint.)

Statement A) 

Today, at 5pm, a protest occurred in downtown Los Angeles. Joe Smith, Professor of Black Studies at UCLA, organized the event to bring awareness to a recent event where Black suspects were detained and suffered injuries. After 2 hours, a fight broke out between protestors and counter-protestors. The police were called in response leading to the arrests of 3 protestors and 2 counter-protestors. 

Typically, journalism reports the above and adds subsequent commentary to interpret the event. So a Fox News newscaster may include additional commentary on top of Statement A to create an entirely new Statement B:

Statement B) 

Today, at 5pm, a student protest occurred in downtown Los Angeles. Joe Smith, Professor of Black Studies at UCLA, organized the event to bring awareness to a recent event where Black suspects were detained after resisting arrest and suffered injuries. After 2 hours of what local business owners described as complete chaos, a fight broke out between protestors and counter-protestors wearing MAGA campaign clothing. The police were called in response leading to the arrests of 3 protestors and 2 injured counter-protestors. 

The above adds additional descriptive information that, while technically true, distorts the original meaning of the information. The addition of "student" will delegitimize the protestors as being politically immature. The addition of "after resisting arrest" justifies the injuries sustained to the detained men. The addition of color commentary from eyewitnesses charges the event with subjective emotional energy. The addition of "wearing MAGA campaign clothing" assumes that the protestors were agents of anarchy, whereas the counter-protestors were supporting a return to order by the current Executive administration. The final addition of "injured" insinuates that the protestors were violent and the counter protestors were not. 

The same kind of additions can be added for a left leaning message:

Statement C:

Today, at 5pm, a protest occurred in downtown Los Angeles at Bunker Hill. Joe Smith, Pulitzer Prize winning professor of Black Studies at UCLA, organized the event to bring awareness to a recent event where Black suspects were unlawfully detained and suffered injuries. After 2 hours of peaceful demonstrations, a fight broke out between protestors and armed counter-protestors. The police were called in response leading to the arrests of 3 protestors and 2 counter-protestors charged with intimidation and brandishing a deadly weapon. 

The additional details highlight the location of the protests taking place in a cultural center of downtown Los Angeles. The organizer, Joe Smith, is given credibility with his past achievements. Adding that the suspects were "unlawfully" detained suggests systemic injustice in some form contributed to the circumstances surrounding the arrest. The quality of the demonstrations as "peaceful," gives sympathy to the protestors, who are threatened with violence by "armed" counter-protestors. The final detail of the 2 counter-protestors being "charged with intimidation and brandishing a deadly weapon" further indemnifies the actions of the original protestors.

So, yeah, subjective statements are fucked up.

Given the above, we have only looked at statements, and how objective data can be modified with commentary to create a subjective message. But this kind of influencing can go to additional lengths to influence the subconscious of the subscriber. The curating of related and unrelated stories in a segmentation of news media can add an additional "metastory" on top of everything that then further tints the overall interpretation of all events in the given time frame. Depending on the publication's perceived audience, the metastory will adhere to a particular philosophy, the objective to confirm the bias of the readership. Late author and semioticist, Umberto Eco describes this in his satirical novel Numero Zero, which analyzes the underlying methodology of tabloid media (which in this case, concerns the various regional conflicts and cultural eccentricities of Italy in the early nineties):

"I know it's commonly said that if a labourer attacks a fellow worker, then the newspapers say where he comes from if he's a southerner but not if he comes from the north. Alright, that's racism. But imagine a page on which a laborer from Cuneo, etc. etc., a pensioner from Mestre kills his wife, a newsagent from Bologna commits suicide, a builder from Genoa signs a bogus cheque. What interest is that to readers in the areas where these people were born? Whereas if we are talking about a laborer from Calabria, A pensioners from Matera, a newsagent from Foggia and a builder from Palermo, then it creates concern about criminals coming up from the south, and this makes news..." pg. 46-47

So the idea Eco summarizes (from the point of view of Simei, the Editor-in-Chief of the fictional magazine, Domani) is that, if a newspaper advocates for a specific philosophy, there are ways to use objective data to make a subjective meta-statement that will guide the reader to a specific conclusion. For instance, Fox News might report three of the following (hypothetical) stories in a 24 hour news cycle:

  1. "Obama congratulates Hillary Clinton on her new book in a Facebook post."
  2. "Clinton Foundation fired an employee for [unspecified] misconduct."
  3. "Wikileaks obtains emails involving a large investment made by Hillary Clinton in a German technology firm."
The fictional stories above, when viewed separately, are entirely unrelated. Their objective descriptions are, also, fairly innocuous (other than #2). The curation of the stories is, by no means, an accident however. Even when read separately, a Fox News subscriber can draw a number of conclusions from each story: 
  1. [Indicates a close association (professional and personal) between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.]
  2. [The Clinton Foundation is corrupt.]
  3. [Hillary Clinton is beholden to foreign interests.]
 And from these conclusions, the subscriber infers a larger metastory, with greater implications to the news conscious population as a whole: "Hillary Clinton is a corrupt politician, trying to cover up a scandal that involves foreign companies, and Barak Obama endorses/is aware of/is complicit in/benefits from it." And, so, the final story is a work of fiction, synthesized from objectively factual data. Therefore, even innocuous stories can contribute to misinformation. Eco describes a similar effect in an essay that was delivered to the Associazione Italiana di Semiotica in 2009, titled Censorship and Silence. Specifically he states that the OVERsaturation of meaningless information can crowd larger conversations, or direct attention away from other potential scandals. Boris Johnson appeared to be doing this in June of 2019 when he shared some interesting personal hobbies, which some speculated to be attempts at disrupting Google search results.

I highly recommend looking at Abbie's research into conspiracy theories and how they develop

But, getting back to original matter though, concerning my dad and his statement about fact-checkers and confirmation bias. All I can say is that, despite the addition of color commentary, the original event or detail depicted in a news story still must remain objective. "Obama was the 44th president of the United States," is an objective fact. "Christmas Day will be Friday, December 25th in the year 2020," is an objective fact. To say that fact-checkers are biased is a difficult proposition. This is because we live in an ecosystem of independent bodies that can verify the truth independent of a "fact-checker" by referring to a primary source (poll, dataset, audio/written/photographic testimony, etc.).  Therefore, if a single fact-checker reports something incorrect, there are another ninety-nine available to dispute the claim. This is how peer-reviewed academic journals function. And the process by which they operate have given us countless advances in modern science and medicine. To reject objective, independently verified data is a problem because the validity of data is independent of subjectivity. If the data hurts the observers' feelings, then that is not a weakness of data, that is a weakness of the observer. In the end, it's fundamentally an act of weakness and cowardice that not only endangers the individual, but endangers the safety of those within the individual's sphere of influence. 

So I will just say that, yes, it is true that bias exists within the news continuity. That is unavoidable. However, rather than dismiss bias, it is better (actually) to accommodate for it. When it is accepted that bias exists in the wild, and that it can be dissected and explained, there is greater benefit for everyone. Seeking the historical and cultural origin of various flavors bias helps explain why someone in a population might think a certain way. The faith one puts in bias helps us be aware of how information could be corrupted in transmission via wishful thinking. Most important, accepting the risk of bias forces observers and listeners to be held accountable for the dissemination of false information. 

If we can't accept that responsibility, then we might as well just embrace the middling death of democracy and spirited debate. 



Sunday, May 24, 2020

Why It's Better To Share, Instead of Borrow

Late last year I was scrolling through my Hulu queue and saw the below:


Holy shit! Is it my birthday? I thought. Guy Pearce is my jam! So of course I embarked on a binge of this very short miniseries. (3 episodes, 3 hours)

I was impressed. Before I tell you why, consider the following.

Every so-and-so has done the Christmas Carol story before. Despite the story being of English origin and set in the very specific context of industrialized England, somehow Americans has also been hooked. This is likely due to the biblical overtones of the story. The three ghosts can loosely represent Christocentric ideas like the Trinity or the three days Jesus spent in the tomb after his crucifixion. The story of redemption, of forcing a man to repent for his sins and receive salvation. The lessons taught about generosity, grace, and the worship of material wealth. Even Scrooge's first name, "Ebenezer," is derived from the Hebrew word "ebhen hā-ʽezer" (literally "stone of help"), to symbolize the divine assistance Scrooge receives from the spirits, as well as the heart of stone Scrooge possess until his redemption. It's all there and easily received by a population that is loosely familiar with biblical verbiage.

The story is so ubiquitous (over here, "across the pond") that I grew up on several iterations of Dicken's work including, but not limited to, Mickey's Christmas Carol, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Scrooged, and A Christmas Carol, featuring George C. Scott (1984). (While jogging my memory, I discovered a version with Patrick Stewart!? What have I been doing with my life?) And, even if some of these versions are unfamiliar, it's likely that at least one of these has made it into your life at some point.

I actually liked Scrooged the best growing up, seeing it as some kind of Ghostbusters spin-off.

So, yes, I was very impressed with the recent version put on my FX. The expanded format allowed for a greater level of narrative depth in areas previously unexplored, such as the politics of the afterlife and the hellish bells that toll there. There is also motivation on Marley to move Scrooge to repentance. For, if Marley fails, he will be cast into an unrelenting purgatory. The #metoo movement is invoked when Scrooge forces Mrs. Cratchit to undress in front of him so that she can take out a loan for live-saving surgery for her son Tim. The spendthrift policies of industrialized Britain and the deadly cost of unbridled capitalism are as relevant today as it was then (corporate loopholes, poor working conditions, the wage gap, the working poor, unaccountable executive, etc.). There is even a scene depicting the rationing of coal, where Cratchit is, absurdly, charged for having additional coals provided to his stove in Scrooge's office. Each of these details cement the viewer in the time period and add layers of complexity to the story that has too often been sanitized by an over-emphasis on joyful climax. (Yes, Scrooge is redeemed. But that doesn't negate the pain and neglect he caused, or the inevitable restitution implied by his change of heart.)

But why write about this in the summer? Why is this important?

I actually was hooked by a line read by Pearce in the show, and I knew that I would want to write about it eventually, but never had the time to do so. Specifically, Pearce states the following:
"A gift is but a debt, unwritten but implied."
This idea got my attention, as I languished on my mom's couch last Christmas. Specifically, I had bought my brother a 3D printer, which I wanted to give as both a celebration of his personal industry and the accommodations he made for me while we visited our father in Hawaii. It was quite an expense, something only made possible by money recently bequeathed to me from my late grandmother, but it was worth it. The above quote seemed to explain something behind the materialistic motivations inherent in gift giving. Though my brother was none-the-wiser, there was some part of me that that sought recompense.

Guy Pearce as Scrooge.
(This is all the shit that goes through my head when I write about something. After all these paragraphs, now I begin the actual article.)

I've always been fascinated by the interaction of words, specifically when people use different terms interchangeably. The language behind share and borrow is markedly different, despite their everyday use as equivalents. Both terms invoke the collaborative ownership of something (wealth, property, resources, etc). Both are primarily positive in connotation. Where the terms part ways involved the object of the sharing or borrowing, In the latter case, borrowing implies that resources gained are returned. Sharing implies extended or perpetual ownership. I would not be the first person to write about the implications behind gift giving. But what I seem to get stuck on is the liquidity of the terms.

Sharing reminds me of the early Christian Church. In the Book of Acts 2:42-47 we read the following:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

The only reason I bring the bible in to this, is because Americans typically leverage biblical language, the language of A Christmas Carol, while championing the acquisition of wealth, equating divine favor and moral excellence to those who were most adept. But, clearly, in the bible we see a different idea taking place: the sharing of resources for the betterment of the collective. This is essentially a prototype of communism, where members of the community own the "means of production."

Oldie, but a goodie.

Scrooge's statement, where a gift demands reciprocity in some form, brings an argument against charity, that in giving there is an implicit motive to justify one's self. Or, we simply give to feel congratulated and compensate for a moral failing that looms over our consciousness. The moral of A Christmas Carol promotes the idea of selfless giving, specifically grace.

Borrowing, as a concept at least, implies temporary ownership. It is active on the part of the supplicant, passive on the part of the provider. One goes to an institution and asks for a resource and is given that resource, with the understanding that this resource will be repaid in some capacity over time. Obviously this practice is monetized to favor the institution. Some form of additional reciprocity is sought to justify the initial lending. This is typically done with charging interest, where a percent of the total money left to be repaid is charged in addition to the principal. I'm laboring on the minutiae of this to prove a point: of the two terms, only borrowing is inherently predatory.

When we share our resources, we are committing to mutual prosperity and strength. A community, even on the fringe, will survive indefinitely when operating under the concept of sharing resources. Likewise, when someone buys "shares" in a company, they are participating in a group effort to see something come into being. Sharing, in my mind, aligns with the concept of grace; that is, unmerited favor. Grace is a gift. There is no implied debt or language hinting at future reimbursement. It flies in the very face of modern theories like laissez-faire capitalism, where economies are advanced on the basis of self-interest and competition over limited resources. This is incompatible with the Gospel and the concept of sharing. But, even Christians seem consigned to rationalize the use of free market capitalism as a means to an end, or a necessary evil that we must all endure for the sake of general order. Verily, Jesus never said, "Blessed are the poor, that is, unless they deserve to be poor because they collect food stamps, make bad decisions, and are addicted to meth." Sharing involves two active participants, and, rather than the supplicant approaching the provider, it is the provider that approaches the supplicant.

There are several iterations of this comic that have popped up on the internet in the past few years. But all seem to point out the incongruity between the worship of market freedom over the livelihood of average workers.

At the end of the day, the nuance of this argument can be obfuscated by quick tempers and personal narratives. Objectivity flies out of the window and we typically keep to our camps, where the firelight is warm, comforting, and calming. Rarely are we forced to venture beyond the borders and confront the wilderness. That would require bravery, after all. I know that my philosophy is influenced by the teachings of Jesus, which some may find hostile for tertiary reasons. If you, reader, are not a fan of the whole Christianity thing, then consider something like the Utopian future of Star Trek, embodied by the fictional organization known as the United Federation of Planets. In this speculative timeline, resources are shared within the federation. Though there is money exchanged between the Federation and other species (ie, the Ferengi, who covet "gold plated Latinum"), the act of doing so is implicitly denigrating to both parties. And, though it seems absurd to live life based on fictional principals, just because it's not real doesn't mean it can't have an impact on how experience the world and interact with it. (In my case, I believe Jesus is reality, which I would call a "win" in my book.)

Anyways, that's what's been on my mind the past few weeks.

In other news, I finished my 3rd book this weekend. I am beyond excited to share the details with you as the book enters the design process!

#TheWorkingAuthor

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Imagine a Hat...

I have heard, with no certainty, that the difference between classical acting and method acting is either acting inwardly or outwardly. Method acting involves entering the mind of the character being played. Classical, on the other hand, takes something attributed to the character and then learning how that character interacts with it. This could be a hat, or a cane, or a trinket, and from that the character is extracted.

Keep in mind, this could be all completely wrong. But it makes sense to me.



Maybe this comes from what I've seen in film and stage plays. Hamlet holding a skull, contemplating death. Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass, snooping around. The T-800 wearing black leather and a pair of menacing sunglasses at all hours of the night. All this makes sense to me, especially when writing a character that is outgoing, socially adept, or professional. These kinds of characters smoke cigarettes, drink whiskey, dance on poles (light, stripper, or otherwise), wear white gloves or black hats, and hold on to things while they walk. Visually, these brief descriptions invoke certain archetypes in literature and film. You can imagine the symbol of a cowboy being made up of the sum of his/her parts: wearing a white/brown/black hat, smoking Marlboro, and drinking coarsely ground coffee that's been watered down to make it last longer. But even the associations between cowboy and cigarette conjure, in my mind at least, a rogue desperado walking up a steep incline toward a crest that overlooks a parched desert valley.

Internal characters, developed vis a vis a method actor perspective, are much harder to write. In my case, characters written in first person-limited essentially demand that I get inside their heads, which is challenging. It's so easy to influence the decisions made by the characters first of all. The author is biased in different and fundamental ways. If the character is a drug addict, the authenticity lent by the author is, at best, representative and not autobiographical. (That is, unless, the author is Hunter S. Thompson.) To get inside the head of a drug addict requires extensive research and interviews with those involved in that kind of lifestyle. The creative act therefore is not solely rooted in literary devices and diction, but in how pieces of evidence are knit together into a cohesive collage that, over time, becomes a homunculus made of pixels or bleached wood pulp (depending on the preferred medium of the reader). So, in essence, the method-actor-author is like a serial killer, flaying his/her victims and stitching together the pieces into ghoulish abominations. (I'm pretty sure that's what happens in True Crime novels at least.)

At this point... I'm stuck somewhere in between the two, which is amusing because of how black-and-white I often think about things. My characters typically drink whiskey, or throw rocks across ponds, or shave in the mirror, but I also read Godel Escher Bach and I am a Strange Loop to better understand the mathematical philosophy behind artificial intelligence and how that can be used to theorize how neurons relay information through our brains. I guess there is merit for each perspective.

As Alyssa works through draft two of my second novel, it's good to consider these things so that I have some better angles on the third and final draft.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Philosophy and Shit


I had a thought while driving back to the office today after lunch. (My wife and I share one car, so we trade on our lunches.) Philosophers were people, just like you and I. Why are they such a fucking big deal?



“20% of what Philosophers say is true, the other 80% is bullshit,” is what my friend Desmond says, and it’s not a bad maxim to live by, considering the branding that certain philosophers (or authors) exude over the course of their tenure—Grant Morrison is convinced that he was abducted by aliens from the 4th dimension in Kathmandu, an experience which has begotten the best cosmology and world building to date within the DC Universe.

And this really isn’t about philosophers specifically. It’s more of a credibility kind of thing. The words we speak, how they impact people, whether they endure beyond our close circle of friends or disseminate into the ether of pop-culture and beyond. I imagine that, throughout life, the layman and learned alike are told that philosophers and other influencers of culture are these larger than life figures. I’m often guilty of this. See below:



I admit I was angry at first. I mean take the fucking compliment, guy. But on further reflection, this appears to be the case, regardless of the critical distance that is maintained to allow some appreciation of accomplishment. Behind the storyboards, folios, and canvases are just normal, flesh-and-blood people. We know those we love (artistically) aren’t gods because Jack Kirby and Ronnie James Dio are dead. (Though their influences are legion in their respective industries.)

Many work to make a living. Very few get to make art, without feeling like they are “working.” Dante for example was one of the few authors in human history to experience the joy and legacy of his work within his own lifetime. For everyone else that enjoys, possible, posthumous fame, I think this is the case because of nostalgia.

Consider, for a moment, that in Hellenist Greece ideas were weighed with greater contemporary influence than they are in the modern era. There were forums back then specifically for debate and intellectual pursuits, because it was what their culture valued. Today (the "modern" world, which could span from the Renaissance to now) this isn’t the case, and philosophy has been relegated to a niche occupied by idealists, shutins, and professors. Philosophy is valued because of the nostalgia for the era in which those ideas were conceived. This can be the only explanation for why many philosophers never enjoyed their due in life.

After all, death amplifies of appreciation. The sense of loss and catharsis brought on by death naturally magnifies the value of someone’s life work as we, the bereaved, try to come to terms with what has happened. So the issue of critical distance makes sense in this case. We can’t, personally speaking, appreciate what we are offering because of the limit imposed by our own vantage point. When we try to do this, the only foreseeable outcome is looking like a giant piece of shit (a la Kanye West).

So, at least for now, fame shouldn’t get to our heads. Not until there are worms in them, at least.   

>
>
>

Enraged, curious, stimulated by what you just read?! Comment below! Let's talk about it!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Process (Of Writing a Book)



For the first time in a long while I have nothing to do this weekend. My wife is currently looking at my second draft, while I am on child duty until she completes. While it would be nice to catch up on my personal reading, I’m not sure if that will happen or not. I seem to have less and less time for that these days, unless I’m on vacation. I mean, there’s certainly time to do all these things, but binge watching Star Trek: Enterprise has monopolized our evenings. Everyone likes to shit on that series, but it’s great. When I imagine a speculative fiction of the first years following warp space flight, Enterprise embodies what I would expect to occur: cultural tensions between alien races that are trying to be helpful, humanity’s own immaturity, and the collective mustering of human potential for the better of tomorrow. Ideally, a Star Trek property should encourage us to be explorers, to be understanding, to be open to learning new things, and more than any other, Enterprise exceeds that vision.
                So maybe when that is over I can start reading in the evenings again, especially while my kid is still content on going to bed at 7pm every night. She’s like her dad. She sleeps like a rock and we are very grateful.
                While I’ve written about this before, most of my older posts were archived permanently post-rebranding. I wanted to revisit and share again the process by which I write books. It’s probably my personality—well, definitely—but I never have issues getting ideas on paper. Many times I’ll read something that self-referentially talks about the writing process as this creative struggle. Personally, I don’t get what the big fucking deal is. But it only recently occurred to me that maybe my “system” has a lot to do with the way I lay out everything and then fill in the gaps
                Usually I’ll get an idea, a two sentence extract, and start with that. It’s concise and purposefully focuses on conceptual details rather than specific characters or settings. That’s “part one-and-a-half” of the recipe. The second part of this is really the expansion of the extract, which I call a “concept bible.” Any ideas relating to the story are put in this document, almost as if it was a wiki entry all spread out. See below for screen shots from the Concept bible for my third book:

Usually my wife writes a few notes on the first chapter so that I know I am going in the right direction. This is followed by a plot extract, detailing the full overview of the plot from start to finish.

Usually if my book has a central philosophical point that I want to explore or rediscover I have a section dedicated to this. My next book explores  the different facets of artificial intelligence, hence the above.
I like exploring different languages so usually I will create a fictional language and explain their rules so I can remember
them later. Also, main characters get a large paragraph with a full explanation of their visual appearance and motivations.

Any characters that appear in the book, even minor characters, I write bios for. This is helpful because, it helps me keep track of details like their visual descriptions and any characters I might forget about and never feature again. 

Every book will have minor subplots that affect the main plot. Sub-plots can get lost in the writing process and become non-sequitur, off-hand references, so I write them down to keep track of them. Some notes don't fit with other categories. World building details like population size, laws, cultural values, go here. As you can see above, I wanted to invent different types of drugs at one point. 
The above are only screenshots of a large document. By the time the book is finished, this document balloons in size. But I can’t even say how many times this document has saved my ass and helped Alyssa track all of my thoughts.

                What I started doing for this book—and I think I will continue doing so—is that I created a character mythology. Every main character follows a journey (ie. Heroes’ Journey) that demonstrates how they grow and change over the course of the narrative. Immaturity to maturity. Child to adult. Unknown to known. I wanted to start keeping track of these details because I felt like my books didn’t demonstrate enough internal character development. Similarly, I create artificial rules for the narrative before I begin writing, which I just call “Book Rules.” Whereas a character mythology is written after I receive feedback for the first draft, book rules serve to, from start to finish, ensure that certain technical practices are consistent throughout the story. For instance, if I create an artificial language for my story, I write down the proper syntax in this document so that both Alyssa and I adhere to these rules throughout the entire book.
                The first draft feedback, like my first novel Spirit of Orn, was provided by my best friend Desmond White. This document I rely on is invaluable. Good feedback is critical in tone, which helps in two ways. First, good feedback is humbling. I laughed so hard when I read the feedback for Spirit of Orn, that I was crying. Desmond lays into my books and points out all the inconsistencies where my ideas are pompous or overcooked. The second thing that’s valuable about feedback is the substantive additions that come from the reviewer. Desmond, for instance, suggested that I read Brave New World and Notes From Underground to supplement and further some of the compelling ideas I was exploring in Spirit of Orn.
                The last document that I keep around is the “cut” document. Most of draft one is rewritten for draft two, and sections that are conceptually valuable, but no longer suitable for the story, I cut and paste to a separate document. Draft two of my upcoming book has the same word count of my previous draft, but my cut document is 21 pages long. I’m never sure what I’ll need or return to, so this document is a backup of old (and mostly bad) ideas.
                The process that I use works for me. I like the structure. I’ve always been very good at visualizing the grand narrative, but the minutiae is so hard for me to keep track of. I’m always encouraged by hearing from others about their way of doing things, so I hope that this is just good perspective.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Funny Thing About Names


Today's blog be all like...


I will share a story that illuminates not one of my finest moments.

My wife was sharing with me one of her short stories she wrote in high school (as a part of a project or fun, I can’t quite remember). She told me that she picked out the names of the characters very purposefully throughout the creative process, cross-referencing names with meanings and origins that illuminated aspects of the plot. Truth be told, I did the same thing in high school, writing a many-part story called “Heavy Metal Dawn,” for which I labored months without any consideration for what I would do with the story at its conclusion. I think it is for this reason that I ultimately gave up on it. Anyways, I did the same thing as my wife. Taking Japanese words and appropriating them as “names” (ie. “Guita Watarimono,” or “Guitar Wanderer”), I achieved nigh epic heights of weeaboory (IPA - wiːəburē). And I think it is for this reason, now that I’m older, that I remember that moment, cringing. Names don’t mean anything. They are just things that we call ourselves, because our parents made the choice for us.

This is a postmodern idea, that meaning is fluid and ever changing. It is why gender, politics, race, and religion are all relative and mean nothing anymore. Naturally, then, I would scoff now at an idea like a name and a meaning behind it somehow appending certain virtues and traits. For instance, my name is “Stuart.” Stuart derives from an Old English portmanteau of stig ("house") and weard ("guard"). The later British equivalent is “Steward” and the Anglicized version is “Stuart.” My surname, “Warren,” is eponymous of (what according to Google Dictionary is) “an enclosed piece of land set aside for breeding game, especially rabbits.”

Right from the get-go I am at odds with this. Though I am trustworthy, capable of taking tasks and endeavor to please those I meet, I am not a leader. In fact, growing up I was an outcast. My name, for the most part, has hung around my neck as an albatross since my birth as a sign of my failure to live up to my name’s meaning and import. And while “Warren” maintains some regal quality to it, I hardly imagine myself to be equivalent to a labyrinthine network of burrows, or a hunting ground for rabbits in the middle ages. Patronyms also create names by just combining the name of your father and your sex (Angason for boy or Agnadóttir for girl, in Icelandic). But what if your father was an asshole? Your name is now anathema to any prospects going forward. In any case, I must hate first names because I’m salty as a motherfucker, I guess…

While a first name like “Agni” may confer the legacy of a legendary Swedish king or a Hindu fire deity, the surname was typically an embellishment of the first name. In English traditions, last names were conferred based on the profession of your father, like Smith (From Wikipedia: refers to a smith, originally deriving from smið or smiþ, the Old English term meaning one who works in metal related to the word smitan, the Old English form of smite, which also meant strike.) or Cooper (from Ancestry.com: “a repairer of wooden vessels such as barrels, tubs, buckets, casks, and vats, from Middle English couper, cowper.”). But does one want to be their father? Or take their father’s profession? That is more of a problem for today. Back then, there was no choice in the matter. A trade brought in money that paid feudal dues.

When it comes to writing, in light of the above, I take a different approach. Names aren’t as important to me as the experiential quality. Living with a character throughout a story, a name like “Roberto” will imbue whatever quality you desire. In Umberto Eco’s book The Island of the Day Before, Roberto’s character evolves over the course of the story, so any preconceptions about the name “Roberto” quickly fade away. Because of this experience I have with reading, I spend no time consulting with reference materials to find “appropriate” names for my characters. Instead, I choose names arbitrarily (most of the time). Because that is what life is like: random and chaotic. I know someone named “Tabitha,” which is a traditional name. But she exudes an eclectic style that seems in conflict with her name. Likewise, I have heard stories of POWs and veterans naming their children after their fallen brothers, as a way of immortalizing their memory, though their children will live their own lives, without the experiential import of their naming. So the use of naming, to me at least, isn’t very important.

Despite all that I’ve said, we did name our daughter “Eowyn,” which is a fictional name invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, invoking the Old English naming methodologies. Tolkien applied this name to a character in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, who stands down a demon king, fulfilling an ancient prophesy to smite evil. Do I necessarily want my daughter to challenge a demon to mortal combat? Not really. But we chose the name for her because it embodies what we wish her to be: strong, confident, and assertive. So, at the end of all this, I’m just a hypocrite. But who isn’t? The defining difference here is that the meaning of names in writing can be more effectively determined due to the innate determinism that defines writing, as opposed to real life, where meaning is in constant flux. And to reject that determinism, in my opinion, makes the work more true to life. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Memes of Racism


I was talking to my wife the other day about memes, which, if you’ve been living under a rock for the last 15 or so years, are captioned pictures of viral content that have taken on almost organic consciousness on the internet. Typically they are funny, or they comment on current events specifically. I mostly know them as pictures of “puppers” and “doggos” eating “chimkin nuggets.”

In human history we have recognized symbols either tangibly or abstractly. For instance Moses from the Old Testament is a symbol of Christ (of Type) as a mediator between God and Man. A cross represents, and points to, the specific time in history when Christ was crucified. The invisible hand imagines an intangible force based on the movement of wealth in a free economy, as put forth by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations. Or, the statue of the Shinto god Hachiman could represent either war, or the essence of the god himself when present in a shrine. Personally, I believe that memes today are the avatars of pessimism and cynicism, products of the mutable post-modern age. And at the risk of misusing “post-modern,” because even the word means nothing now, post-modern typically is a junk drawer term for any deconstructed position that critiques reigning epistemological authorities or traditions of thought / belief.
One of the original instances of Pepe.

What got me thinking about memes yesterday was the hijacking of one such meme, “Pepe the frog” and its use by neo-Nazis and white nationalists (AKA the Alt-Right). 

Iterations of the Swastica used in Eastern cultures.


A famous example of a neutral symbol being commandeered for hate is the Swastika, which originated in a host of Eurasian religious traditions. In Hinduism, the symbol was associated with luck and general wellbeing. While the origins of why the Nazis took this symbol escape me, I want to say that it had something to do with the belief that India was once known as a seat of a powerfully advanced race of Caucasians, but don’t quote me on that. Anyways, regardless of the origin of the Nazi belief, the symbol was taken and used as a hate symbol. Also, the image of the cross of Christ’s crucifixion has also been co-opted by White supremacists and the KKK by using it to intimidate African Americans by burning them on their lawns, or public places. I think it’s interesting then that people have taken Pepe, something so ephemeral in the grand scheme of things, and created a hate symbol out of him.

A cross burning, carried out by the KKK.

 
While the swastika was a symbol of fascism, memes are self-assigned their meaning. People view them and ascribe meaning to them. In marketing language, viewing an ad (image or otherwise) is called an impression. So when we view memes they are impressions that we encounter. Fascist symbols are ubiquitous and are widespread. They are typically put in public places, or on medals of service, but they are not however inside a person’s living area, unless the symbol was put there. In that respect the symbol can be avoided. I think what makes viral media so impactful is that you can’t avoid it now that the internet is integrated with nearly every aspect of our lives. Not only that, memes already are an expression of the cynical and apathetic zeitgeist we currently find ourselves in. That a meme places the viewer at a disadvantage by making opposition to the image seem petty or disproportionate in use context, the power of hate symbols spreading on the internet as memes are amplified. Furthermore, the impressions are personal, inside the four walls of home. They have penetrated the inner space of our lives, and we cannot escape.

As a creator of content, the reality that someone can insert meaning into something I’ve created is extremely compelling. My heart goes out to Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe, because his symbol has been effectively stolen from him. His resulting anguish is depicted in his response to the hijacking of his creation:




Monday, June 25, 2018

Inventing Enemies

I realize that a writer’s blog should be memes and personable stuff, which I suck at. I really am a nice person. Promise! I’m just difficult to wrangle and coax out in person, let alone through the impersonal channels of the internet.
                But hey, I’m good at “being interesting.” This is what I’ve been told. So I’ve come up with a regurgitation of one of my recent reads that has really gotten be immersed in thinking.
                There’s an essay called “Inventing the Enemy” by Umberto Eco, a recent author in my collection that is occupying more and more of my time. Even now, in light of what is going on around the world, I thought the essay shows how anyone can create an “enemy.” An enemy doesn’t have to be someone were are at odds with in this scenario, just someone that we consider alien to us, or not of our kind, nationality, race, social standing, or otherwise. I wanted to give a birds eye view of Eco’s argument below. The essay is still  available in print and I highly recommend reading it, even if the language is stilted and archaic. (It was originally written in Italian and translated pieces can seem stale on the outside.)
  •         Eco states that enemies are first geographically different than us. They come from the outside. He cites the barbarians invading Rome at the peak and decline of the Roman Empire as chief examples. In today’s terms someone can be an “enemy” of ours if they reside in another country. We may never have met these people, or have had any long distance contact (i.e. wireless communication, internet chatting, etc), but they are someone removed from us. And their distance makes them the easiest target for creating an enemy for us to fight/oppose.
  •          Likewise, another degree of separation occurs with language. Eco cites the same example of the “barbarian” languages that invaded Rome, weakening the national identity of Rome. The word barbarian suggests a corruption of language (bar-bar-ian, like a stutter in speech). Those that we can’t understand, which requires us to have contact with them either personally or via audio message, we would reject as people we are against.
  •        After language comes those that live inside the city walls. Those that are strange to us are most likely to be immigrants. The United States has a long history of targeting immigrants, either 1st or 2nd generation, that have come from foreign lands to be with us and are at the beginning, or in process, of assimilation into the parent culture. These are people that are ESL (English as a Second Language) or they work less desirable jobs or they are having trouble finding a footing in a strange and new environment. They are easy to pick out in a crowd, maybe because their clothing is different, or because they live in ghettos where other fellow immigrants reside. We often make enemies of these people because they are easy to blame for things that are seemingly outside of our control. Crime, population density, government spending, and education burdens can all be easily blamed on the “immigrant” by the interior culture.
  •      Eco suggests, after his studying of Medieval history and philosophy, that those suffering from deformities would be the deepest layer where we could make our enemies. Assuming that the person on the outside has come in, learned our language, adopted our culture, and has demonstrably become essential to the community, those that are missing limbs, blind, mentally impaired, or suffering from congenital defects are seen as enemies because they lack on a fundamental level core abilities of other humans. This may not be as much an issue today as it was a thousand years ago, but an equivalent can be found in the homeless, who are dehumanized for their inability to care for themselves. They are seen as feral, unstable, and incomplete, therefore becoming an adequate enemy. Eco seems to have the most sympathy on this level of inhumanity simply because individuals of this strata are the easiest to blame and have few advocates.
I find the above really fascinating, and my synthesis of the arguments is limited by the amount of detail Eco lends to his argument. What is more sobering is his subsequent treatment, and potential explanation for the origins of antisemitism, not only because it is still fresh in our minds from the Holocaust but because of Arabs taking their place in the 21st century due to the events of 9/11. Despite dominating fields of medicine, law, finance, science, physics, mathematics, and humanities, Arabs encounter daily opposition for their skin color and religion simply because they are externally different or foreign within the parent culture of the United States.
                All these ideas are potent for discussion, but I’ve discovered personally that even with lengthy discourse there is still a degree of separation between theory and practice. We can talk about something in depth, but we can never see that we too make our own enemies on a daily basis, even subconsciously, and not even care about it.
                They key point Eco makes, the final conclusion he makes in his essay that is chilling to say the least, is that having an enemy, or maintaining a diet of enemies to consume and present, creates positive growth. I will leave you with these. I hope they make you think about the weightiness of his conclusions.




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Enemy is Us


Here’s a thought:

Any view is defined from the opposing end of that view’s spectrum. The idea came to me, while I was entertaining guests at a birthday party for my daughter. I was able to “geek out” with a couple of guests, and in the pursuit of doing so I heard someone tell me that “most comics are left of center.” The context for the statement was that there was a particular group that was advocating “right-of-center” comics, but that they were met with fierce opposition from within the community. (I wasn’t aware of this, but I assume that all hell broke loose because of it.) I found the idea odd, that we need comics written “right-of-center.” No comic book writer/film critic/author writes content that establishes a worldview based on their enemy’s characterization of them—that is, I wouldn’t specifically write a book that was “liberal” because a critic of mine suggested that I was “liberal.” I would assume that they would write a story that reflected their own beliefs. I write stories that discuss things that interest me. I am not out to incite arguments. But I write what I write because I find that content interesting to me.
I find, that when someone (person B) characterizes your views (person A) as their opposite, what is happening behind the scenes is an instilling of existential competition, to validate beliefs of the original critic (person B) as valid, or more valid. I see this a lot in religion because I am a Christian and people are often insecure about their faith (myself included). I see instances where a layman witnesses same-sex marriage become validated by popular culture or reads about a scientific finding that sheds doubt on aspects of Christian orthodoxy, and their initial reaction is to characterize the supporters of those positions as being in opposition to his/her own. It’s therapeutic, ultimately, to be validated by creating an enemy. The stakes are higher now. And because enemies ultimately “lose,” we are invigorated when we read or hear something that sheds doubt on our opponent’s position.
The unintended effect is that we create our enemies as a toxic pursuit to escape our fears, rather than confront them and try to make sense of them.
What should we do, then, to avoid this?
Sorry, I have no idea. But I have thoughts.
See, going back to my opening point. If I write something that inadvertently challenges the worldview of another person, the onus is on that offended party to confront me and ask me in an understanding way why I have that position. Because I am not intentionally trying to offend someone. I’m, in most cases, just writing a story, or creating art, that resonates with me. The specter that we create of our enemies is a strawman that we sling mud upon rather than making an attempt to bridge the gap and attempt to understand any view different from our own.
Another interesting example: there was a time when I thought I was going to be a pastor of a Christian church. The unfortunate thing about this, was that I was very involved with the viewpoint of a certain pastor and I had purchased all his books and followed all his sermons. When I would confront a viewpoint that was different or, worst, in opposition to this pastor, I would write it off as poor scholarship on the opponent’s part. Then I was told an interesting anecdote as I was venting my frustrations our on my sponsoring mentor. If you read one author (his works in total), then you are a clone. If you read two authors, you’re confused. If you read three authors, you begin to develop an ecumenical understanding of knowledge pertinent to that topic.
This applies to everything: cooking, knitting, philosophy, politics, video games, religion, film, etc. What I don’t want you (reader) to take away from this is that your viewpoint is invalidated, or diminished, once you’ve reached this point of ecumenical understanding of your topic. What I desire you to take away is that people believe certain things because it’s personal to them, and there is a story behind that belief. When enough people are like-minded, they coalesce into a larger entity that takes core values (but not all of them) and synthesizes a new position that lacks the multifaceted explanations of certain beliefs.
In light of social media, I am convinced more and more that Facebook and other platforms are a cancer to our ecumenical understandings because they have condensed conversations and familiarity into statements and surface level understanding.
Chew on that for a bit.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Video Games are Racist, Bruh

I have a sneaking suspicion that RPG games are inherently racist.

Hear me out.

I’ve thought about this for a while, and I don’t think it’s intentional at all. Or maybe I just read too deeply into things like this. If you’ve ever read Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy you’ll know that we seem to naturally, throughout history, create enemies to propel our societies forward. We rely on differences (physical, political, religions, social, and economic) to separate the undesirables out. All this hinges on a lack of empathy toward this “other,” because once we feel empathy for the other, these differences can no longer be superficial.

From birth we are trained to recognize and pick out classes, like being a young kid and seeing a homeless person, and then—in the same day sometimes—going to a neighbor’s house of moderate wealth. Then, while still being kids, we encounter as we get a little older videogames of varying complexity that implement progression and class based forms of entertainment. Not only are they competitive, but each class’s specialization locks you into a certain path of gameplay. Fantasy roleplaying games take this concept further and suggest perks and disadvantages for playing a certain race. Elves may have bonuses to stealth and intelligence, or charisma even, evoking the image of an elite member of society, connected to social and political strongholds. Conversely, orcs may have penalties to intelligence and charisma, but they have proficiencies that boost strength and traits that are integral to physical combat. To add insult to injury, at least in the Dungeons and Dragons game system, orcs are also typically evil in alignment. (I once played a game as an orc paladin, and the whole time I was reminded by the dugeon master that orcs could not be paladins because they were evil and having a good, or even neutral alignment, was tantamount to breaking the rules!)

Race is an artificial term already, as there is no genetic difference between a human from Africa and a human from North Africa. While there are physical differences between someone from Africa, who has extra skin pigment after exposure to blistering, equatorial sunlight, and a North American person, there is no degree of separation that would deny procreation between the two. Race, if anything is an artificial moniker that human beings have employed to categorically separate individuals from each other whom hail from a variety of geographical regions on the planet. Yet there are stereotypes, not unlike the class based systems in role playing games and other video games that implement class and skill progression trees, which entertain the idea of “racial traits” (I.e. Asians are intelligent, Blacks are lazy (yet exceedingly strong), Caucasians are politically cunning). These racial stereotypes supplant the familiarity we all share as human beings with a veil of obscuring unfamiliarity and suspicion. This is how “others” are created.

So imagine the reality that as children, while we are still building a conceptual framework of the work through our observations and experiences, we are encountering the ideas, suggestions, that certain people are better at some things and others are not. Not only that, we are doing battle with, struggling for resources with, engendering a “race” based competitive ecosystem with complete strangers. The entire premise is literally Darwinian in nature.

Obviously, this is all introspective speculation and the strength of this argument depends on how willing you are to look into it. But I could easily write a book on my experiences, incorporating trolling, anonymity, death threats against female developers, and Varg Vikernes’ roleplaying game MYFAROG. The latter is funny, because on my way to Norway a few years ago I sat right next to a personal friend of Varg who told me that certain, less desirable races, were meant to specifically emulate the stereotypes of people of color (specifically blacks).


Anyways, food for thought.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

RCT, Easy as 1,2,3

It’s been a long time – too long.

My book’s first draft is complete and I’ve sent it to my trusted advisors for their notes and insight. This is a common practice, one that I had only recently heard of and embraced by accident when I gave my first book to my good friend Desmond. He proceeded to shit all over my book. That sounds bad, but it wasn’t. It was eye opening. Everyone should be subjected to criticism, even if you’re fucking James Joyce.

I get these moments that come and go. Fleeting ideas that condense and then dissipate like morning mist in the desert. I like writing about these but I don’t, because they are rants. And no one wants to read that shit. Most of the time I think about them because I’m mad at something, or someone. Or, I am sitting alone and recounting the day’s events and considering the slights that I received and then avenge myself by articulating these brisk and colorful responses.

One, however, coalesced.

Something that has always bothered me is the concept of white guilt. Let me preface this by affirming that there is a deep need to reassess the social and economic damage that Americans have inflicted upon indigenous people. We owe the descendants of slaves, the victims of failed Reconstruction era politics, a fighting chance to compete and receive the education they deserve. I can go on, but it would detract from the point I want to make.

Like all things, the narrative of prejudice is hopelessly complex. Let me summarize: Realistic conflict theory, as demonstrated by the Robbers’ Cave Study. I find this study fascinating, mostly for the confirmation bias it offers me in my spiritual views on the nature of humans. The experimental model of the study is rudimentary, and lacking in the sophistication of modern psychological studies that attempt to account for extraneous variables, and deploy methodologies that curb all manners and sorts of bias. Still, I think it demonstrates a tendency for prejudice to occur as a byproduct of social, political, economic, and existential tension. And I suppose what bothers me so much about this concept of white guilt is that the narrative is embedded in western civilization, largely ignoring the social narratives of other cultures where there was a demonstrable presence of ingroup/outgroup prejudice. We only ignore it because we don’t wish to make the investment of investigating the “oriental,” the “other,” and bridge the gaps we make between western civilization and the myriad expressions of humanity.

In High School, I knew a “feminist.” We are decent friends today, Facebook friends (for what it’s worth), and our contact is cordial and mutually beneficial. But it’s interesting how our relationship evolved over prolonged periods of antagonism (mostly because, at the time, I had a crush on her). She would make these outrageous, though not misplaced, claims that because I had a dick, I had wronged her, which seemed a bit harsh, granted that I had never done anything to her. It was classic “guilt-by-association.” Nevertheless, it is wrong to pay a woman less than a man because of their sex. It is wrong to view a woman as not capable of arising to the occasional “manly” deed, mostly because men and women offer mutual benefits to working together in synchronicity. It seems disingenuous, if not hypocritical, to hoist one’s self onto a banner of moral superiority and commit the same crime: devaluing someone because of their genitalia. And the same is true of “race,” which is a bit overstated, as we are all homo sapiens.

To further my point, over the last few months I binge-watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was a science fiction television show flexing its intellectual muscles in the late 80s and early 90s. In all seven seasons were captured hypothetical arguments and debate over the preoccupation with Cold War paranoia and interracial conflict – magnificent and worthy pursuits all. I enjoyed the show for its rampant, albeit unintentional, embrace of Globalism, sundering conflict and quieting planetary squabbles under the pretense of dissident races joining the Federation of Planets. It teaches us about the worthiness of our ethnic values, while at the same time devaluing them because they innately encourage the very realistic conflict theory studied by Muzafer Sherif. All ethnicities are, in the end, are artificial divisions based on superficial expressions. To be “enlightened” is to, instead, join hands toward a common goal, and cease the perpetual blame game that has progressed into the 21st century. This is all the ad absurdum reductionism that I could glean from the show, whether they would like to acknowledge it or not.


The issue of white guilt that I have is the caveat of its proposition. I myself have never enslaved a human being or devalued one based on its sex, ethnicity, social tier, or religion. Yet I am devalued based on the assumption that my default predilections are innately sinister. Were I a Martian, living on mars with other Martians, with red skin, and there was an equally powerful group of green-skinned Martians, and we were at each other’s throats for our superficial differences, it would seem very silly to us, but it would make sense to Muzafer Sherif. He would watch us from afar taking field notes in a dust stained moleskin about our petty disputes over limited resources. And, suppose, that I am wrong, and there is no God, I have only just described the very basic principles of evolutionary biology, in which a dominant group supplants another because of their supremacy in means and resources. So I am at a precipice, a crossroads. I have the opportunity to believe that racism is as natural as Realistic Conflict Theory, but I won’t because that’s fucking stupid and we have a choice. We have always had a choice. I believe, wholeheartedly so, that this is who we are when we are blinded by our own egos. But I reject it as the definitive mode in how we operate.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Ghost in the Shell and Whitewashing

I will be seeing Ghost in the Shell fairly soon (not this Tuesday, but the following Tuesday). The Rotten Tomatoes aggregate reveals that I will be mostly entertained by the visual fidelity of the work, though I will likely read into the film from my own working knowledge of the source material and glean some added appreciation from the set pieces and characters.
The whitewashing controversy is the big question and I will have to judge for myself to see if this is any reason to discredit a film which is based off a series preoccupied with transhumanism and the transcendence of ethnic and nation boundaries because of the unification of the world through a thinking, feeling internet. In one episode of Stand Alone Complex (Season 1, Episode 19), a former Russian operative active during the Cold War undertakes a full body operation to implant her brain into a prosthetic body. This body, distinctly Japanese and likely made by Mitsubishi, or some fictionalized Japanese multinational heavy-manufacturing company, is younger, sexier, and masks the ethnicity of an old Slavic woman in favor of a Japanese appearance. One wonders why there is no uproar in Japan over the whitewashing (Japanese-washing? Yellow-washing?) and depiction of foreign nationals as Japanese citizens who speak impeccable Japanese with Level  N1 speaking comprehension. Or perhaps the show (likely) is making a statement about the malleability of race and how the advent of machine prosthesis supplants the need for racial classifications? Obviously, my dismissive tone indicates my position.
Whitewashing is a peculiar thing because the concept of it is exclusive to Americana. I say this because we have many distinct ethnic contributions to the “melting pot” (originally from a play, where the phrase is pejorative). That we originated as a British colony of varied religious diversity—and in the case of Pennsylvania, Pluralism—indicates a largely Continental European origin. It wasn’t until our success drew the eyes of the world to come and take part in the great “American Experiment,” albeit built on the back of slaves and the poor. But the original body of colonists, that heritage societies covetously illustrate (Daughters of the American Revolution, The Mayflower Society, Sons of Norway, etc), their rank in society managed to remain dominant. When those from other countries come to American they culturally assimilate to the “American Way.” And yet this way has changed markedly over the years. The “way” is not the same as it was in 1865, when the Irish acclimated to American Customs and traditions, not fifty-three years removed from the War of 1812, when the sons and daughters of the Crown eschewed their British customs and accents for more “American” expressions of their nation’s proof of concept, earned by a successful repulsion of the British incursion from both Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine being a Polish immigrant adjusting to the “way” paved by culturally normative customs purloined from the Irish, the Germans, the French, and the Italians. Imagine the strain and intercultural conflicts between blacks who had been there before all of them. Somewhere, in all of this historic complexity, is the Hollywood controversy of whitewashing.
                I do not presume to be a sociologist, or someone with the ability to read culture with lossless accuracy, but I do know a thing about myths and legends. But were I to ask a Greek what a God looked like, he/she would describe a Mediterranean man or woman, with smooth bronzed skin from the Agean Sea. Were I to consult a “Galatian” (3rd Century Christianity), they would likely describe a Hellenistic Jew, with a dark complexion and curly dark brown hair that was short and groomed. Were I to ask a pagan Northman in the 8th century (from Denmark or Sweden) to describe the complexion of Thor, they would more than likely describe a pale, muscular warrior, with dark brown beard and white skin, similar to a man that would not see the light of the sun for eight months out of the year. The Yoruba people, from Nigeria, would not describe their thunder god Shango, as a white Northman, but would likely think of him as a creature matching the same definitions of beauty and magnificence that a Yoruban would think. So for each ethnic group of people there are idealistic permutations of beauty and strength and grace that they believe. Our very “American” problem is that we have such a diverse culture that we no longer know what to worship as an ethnic standard of beauty.
When the motion picture industry began, our caste like system, invigorated by failed attempts at post-Civil War Reconstruction, placed non-whites at the bottom of the barrel. And so the trend continued. No “respectable” film company would star a black man as Othello. So, instead, they cast Orson Wells and Lawrence Olivier, and put them in black face. America’s problem continues to this day where Motoko Kusanagi is white, and I recalled reading somewhere they were considering using CGI to make her look “more Asian.” I can’t confirm that so take that with a grain of salt.
In Ghost in the Shell, the producers-that-be felt, for some reason, that Motoko Kusanagi would actually be named “The Major” (a short-hand name for the character in the manga and animated productions), which is coincidentally fitting given the subtext of the near post-human future where ethnicity doesn’t matter and a four hour operation can change your skin color, height, weight, and eye color without consequence.  
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have preferred a Japanese woman to play Motoko. (Maybe Lucy Lu, who is Chinese. Would that still count?). The Major’s character consistently is an over sexualized, lean and athletic, no-nonsense commanding officer, who is bi-sexual and also sexually ambiguous (if you have seen the latest incarnation, ARISE). Scarlet’s stint as Black Widow is an approximation to Motoko’s character, but there is still a lot left to desire, and I am certain that an equivalent actress of Japanese ancestry or nationality could fit the bill. Lasarus Ratuere, who plays Ishikawa, a very typical Japanese intelligence officer and A-Class hacker, is a Fiji born, Australian actor. Does that mean he was “brownwashed?”
Whenever I see these articles on whitewashing, there is little thought to the deep cultural, social, mythological biases that particular cultures embody. Moreover, every country is guilty of doing exactly what we do in other aspects. In Dr. Who it’s the United Kingdom that always makes first contact with the alien invaders. In Star Trek: First Contact, the origin of faster than light travel originates in the American heartland of Montana, on an American missile base. (Thus from the vestiges of the military industrial complex rose the event that catalyzes global peace and interspecies communication.) And, must I remind you, the rampant cultural appropriation made by Bollywood, where the government isn’t in a constant state of upheaval and isn’t profoundly corrupt. Evolutionary Biologists recognize that within our own groups we see those most similar to us favorably and keep away those that are foreign and unfamiliar. They, in essence, suggest that this odd brand of cultural antagonism is bred into us as a survival mechanism and is our “human nature.” But, while I believe in the process of Evolution and the ability for organisms to adapt to their environment, I also don’t want to believe that we are hopelessly shitty and destined to fight over resources with one another like a pack of wild dogs. I believe that we are sentient and enabled to make decisions that descend from our will and not our biology. Which means we can work past our monkey brains to make a responsible, adult decision to not need Emma Stone to play a half Asian Air Force Captain.
And can I add something, slightly unrelated? “White people” itself is sort of a pejorative categorization of lumping anyone with fair colored skin into a larger group of people. There are Germans, Norwegians, Polish, Bulgarian, Czechoslovakians, Italian, French, Belgian, British, Scottish, Irish, Finnish, Russian, and Greek, all with “fair colored” skin. Each of these are simplistic reductions of larger bodies of minorities, that are underrepresented in mainstream culture. (Such as the Soumi people, who are the indigenous people of Finland, and live as nomadic tribes, and, are you ready? Very white.) To say that all white people are alike is, frankly, fucking offensive.

The Bottom Line is, the only way to stop whitewashing is to stop reducing people to skin colors and geographies, but see people as fellow humans who occupy the world alongside us, and to be acquainted with their cultures, and to understand the reality that culture is fluid and ever changing. As a Christian, I know the Gospel of Christ referenced a Kingdom of Heaven, wherein ethnic, social, financial, and gender boundaries co-inhabit  the same lands. There are non-religious alternatives also. But, in either case, I believe a shakeup is in order. All this social outrage is nauseating.