The Player of Games–The Culture’s Language Dismisses Sex

Marain, the Culture’s quintessentially wonderful language…has…one personal pronoun to cover females, males, in-betweens, neuters, children, drones, Minds, other sentient machines, and every life-form capable of scraping together anything remotely resembling a nervous system and the rudiments of language (or a good excuse for not having either). Naturally there are ways of specifying a person’s sex in Marain, but they’re not used in everyday conversation; in the archetypal language-as-moral-weapon-and-proud-of-it, the message is that it’s brains that matter, kids; gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over.

The Player of Games

Lesson Learned: The Dangers of Web Publishing

From late 2003 to early 2005, I wrote for and help publish the web-based film journal called Synoptique. The journal was the brainchild and labor of love of a few of my friends. We were all in the Masters program in film studies at Concordia, and the journal was the most exciting thing I was a part of at the school. By the time things shut down in 2005, there were twelve or thirteen issues online, some of them quite spectacular. And I was proud of the work we’d done, especially with the “Style Gallery” that tried to capture in a variety of forms the most interesting, large-scale conversation from my time in the film program.

And now it’s gone.

The new grad students have updated the site, moved to a new software platform, clearly aiming to pitch the journal as a legitimate academic publication. Fine. (The purpose and audience for the journal was a long-running debate in my time on staff. An academic audience or an educated general public? Good arguments could be made on both sides, but I was a firm proponent of option B.)

What is not fine however is that the archive of older issues is now empty. None of the work that went into a actually creating and establishing the journal as something worth revising exists anymore. Who would throw away that history? (And don’t tell me it’s a technical issue. I’m sure it is because the design of the journal was innovative and exciting. I doubt a generic “open journal” platform could handle it. This is beside the point and only begs the question: why migrate to a platform that makes your site less interesting?)

Anyway, having had no warning that the site was disappearing, I have now lost anything that is not stashed somewhere on my hard drive. I have combed through archive folders and disks and found what I have could. In some cases, what I’ve found is probably (close to) a final draft. Often it obviously is not. Worse, what I have is now completely cut off from its context. Much of what I wrote was marginal material. “Splinters,” for example, were designed to be blurb review of only a few words capturing a mood or a particular point and working as a group or as transitional materials. I have a few of these, but only some of my worst. Some that I remember are gone. The major three-part discussion of style written in collaboration with two close friends is nowhere to be found. My brief essay discussing the institutional positioning of graduate students, gone as well, along with the final versions of my two columns, both improved immensely by the editing of a good friend.  So my frustration levels are high.

But in the interest of not losing anymore ground or material, I’ll be posting what I have on my wiki.

What about K-12?

An interesting piece on the “Say No to School” movement. Like the writer, I also have very mixed reactions. I’m tempted to say my principal implied message to my best students is “continually say ‘no’ to school from within school.” Reading this piece what occurred to me was the way that this debate, which seems only to be about post-secondary education, really hinges on the quality of an individual’s primary and secondary education. The Say-No-ers all drop out of Stanford, Harvard, Yale. In other words, these people came out of grade twelve well enough prepared to enter the Ivy league based on their marks. So “saying ‘no'” means something very different for them than it would if they had grown up and gone to school in Greer, South Carolina.


No is a movie about Pinochet’s ouster and the end of his military dictatorship in Chili. It is notable because of a bold aesthetic choice: it shoots its images using the video technology common during the period in which its story takes place. However much I want to praise this boldness (and numerous festival juries have done so), I walked out of the movie frustrated and angry because of it. I have three objections to what this film does.

The first and most basic is that the video makes the images terribly ugly. The framing and lighting try to turn the ugliness of the medium into style, emphasizing lens flare, color ghosting, silhouetting, but it doesn’t work. Ultimately though, I think that is the point: here, “ugly” means “serious” in a way familiar from what is sometimes called hipsterism. (I am not saying this is hipster movie or that there is even such a kind of movie.)

If the use of video aims to make ugliness read as seriousness, it also serves a more nefarious purpose. The retro-style of the images is not primarily an effort at periodization. It is a tool for blurring the line between archival materials and the new photography. This strategy is fundamentally different from something in, for example, Milk where the archive provides an aesthetic frame for the fictional images but remains distinct from them. In that film, the seams between the historical document and the fictional document are intact, recoverable and emphasized by a series of inserted “reels” beneath the opening and closing credits. Milk was a historical film about the past. No is a simulacrum of the past. In it, the lines between the archival document and the contemporary fiction are consciously effaced. It is not a story about the past; it is a story pretending to be the past. This confusion opens onto dark political territory.

Finally, these two objections are not missteps by the film’s narration. They do not mark failures of its efforts. Quite to the contrary, these “missteps” are clearly thematic and support the film’s project, which is the celebration of advertising’s displacement of history and politics in the public sphere. This film adores the idea that, in a country torn apart by a history of repression and political oppression, a happy message, not historical accounts of oppression or debates about political practices, is what is needed to make the world a better place.

This point is driven home repeatedly in dialogue: the old guard keep wanting to talk about what has happened or what should be done and the protagonist keeps telling them, no, that’s depressing or boring or–and this is the most important recurring phrase of the entire movie–it won’t sell. The protagonist’s message is absurd and he comes across as a completely disengaged, even mercenary person, but the film’s plot insists that he is right. History and politics are old. They don’t sell. Happiness does. So out with the old, in with the new.

Is this what happened in Argentina in the actual past? Is Pinochet’s defeat a product of the capitalism of ideas? The film’s simulacrum of history, which is in fact an advertisement for advertising, leaves me no ground to decide what really happened or not, much less develop an independent opinion about those events.

And one last thing: the contrived “authenticity” of the film’s cinematography? The confusion of historical and new materials? of the real and the fictional? These aestheic choices are the displacement of history and politics at the level of form. In other words, this film is controlled and coherent throughout its multiple levels. What it says, it means. But what it means is abhorent.

Such a Long Journey

Such a Long JourneyA good book that I don’t care enough about to finish.

Update: This book is better than my one line says, and I read over half of it. The main character is interesting and everything in the novel is humane and alive. But when the thing became about government money and a secret agent something snapped for me, and I began not to care. The family was interesting to me. Not the spies and politics.

AIDS Documentaries


 Two powerful documentaries about the AIDS epidemic, both deeply moving. We Were Here is the more standard fare stylistically: many talking heads and the heads belong to ordinary people. How to Survive a Plague is something different. There is nothing ordinary about the people it follows. Their skills and talents were above the norm, and the plague drove them to the hights.

However sad, these are deeply inspiring films. They sparked nostalgia in me for the nineties and the activist spirit of the time. We lost that with the twin towers, and the stupidity that was the Bush years. And yes, I blame the Bush years. And the hooplah around Clinton’s penis.


A Friendly Stranger

I have been reading Roger Ebert’s blog for awhile now. Which meant I read what he wrote as he wrote it, most of it (all of it?) addressed to me (and others) in the informally formal language of polite friendship. I had little or no attachment to his film criticism (although that first brought me to his blog), but I liked reading him talking about living (not life) and admired his view of the world as ripe with possibilities and beauty. It was evident right up to his last blog post, “A Leave of Presence.” And now he has died. A sad day.

A Royal Affair

A film about a Denmark’s transition from the Renaissance and the Baroque into the Elightenment. This is a traditional, well made film who’s strength is based on its content and the clarity of its presentation. I felt like I learned something watching it. Very good.

The Man with the Iron Fists

Another movie by another collaborator that shows:

1. Quintin Tarantino is an artist with extraordinary skills

2. He chews up influences and collaborators’ ideas, spitting them out as something uniquely his own.

This movie also lends support to an idea I’ve had about Tarantino’s films for years: that the cameo is a means of highlighting the difference between writing, acting and direction. Tarantino’s words are inimmitable (cf. The Man with the Iron Fists, The Rules of Attraction, etc.). Yet, his actors, all those casting decisions that seem so odd or obvious, make the already exceptional words qualitatively better. Tarantino can’t perform Tarantino’s dialogue. Tarantino the director knows this, chooses actors who can, and then reveals the device in his always brief, always near the end appearances in his own movies. These cameos constitute meta-criticism and a “bravo” to the actors.

All that said, The Man with the Iron Fists is a dreadful movie, starring Lucy Liu, an actor I adore.

Nicolas Carr on “Unnecessary Communication”

Carr has an interesting post on his blog about subtle ways we adopt the standards of computer communication as the standards of human communication. As some one who is often taken aback by the too-muchness of email, text, etc., the point he makes below made me take a step back and reflect:

What does it mean to be intolerant of “unnecessary communication,” even when it involves those closest to you? In a response to Bilton, Evan Selinger pointed out that it’s a mistake to judge “etiquette norms” by standards of efficiency: “They’re actually about building thoughtful and pro-social character.” Demanding efficient communication on the part of others reflects, Selinger went on, a “selfish desire to dictate the terms of a relationship.” There is a kind of sociopathology at work when we begin to judge conversations by the degree to which they intrude on our personal efficiency. We turn socializing into an extension of economics.

What I realized is that the line between protecting my mental or emotional space and communicating to people like a computer isn’t bright and is easily ignored. Carr thinks about this shift through Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which is very interesting.

That said, his closing discussion of text messaging reveals the difficulty. He points out that texts never mention the receiver’s or sender’s names and suggests these are instances of lost intimacy and signal a drift toward treating people like machines. Thinking of my family text groups, I wonder whether it doesn’t signal extreme intimacy in these cases, my always availability to these closest of friends. The reference here would be Yuri Lotman’s “The Text and the Structure of It’s Audience” and suggests that the problem is with formal and semi-formal communication with non-intimates and with strangers rather than simply communication in all its forms. In other words, does the cashier exist and deserve a “hello” rather than does anyone exist?

From here.

Warren on Democracy

…the “made thing” that the poet produces represents a different kind of form from all the others we know.  Its characteristic quality springs from the special fullness of the relation of a self to the world.  The form of a work represents, not only a manipulation of the world, but an adventure in selfhood.  It embodies the experience of a self vis-à-vis the world, not merely as a subject matter, but as translated into the experience of form.  The form represents uniqueness made available to others, but the strange fact is that the uniqueness is not to be exhausted…. The “made thing,” the “formed thing,” stands as a perennial possibility of experience, available whenever we turn to it…


It is not only the objective characters that serve as “models” of selfhood; the work itself represents the author’s adventure in selfhood…

–Robert Penn Warren, Democracy and Poetry

The Impossible


First the negative things so that they are out of the way:

1. The movie is annoyingly sentimental. To be expected, but still…

2. It only spares sympathy for the poor white tourists unlucky enough to be caught in this horrible disaster in this horrible place, but lucky enough, thankfully, that a Swiss insurance agent arrives to whisk them to safety on an otherwise empty private jet.

3. Ultimately this is a movie about sad unhappy kids, a pet-peeve of mine.

That all said…I was deeply moved by what I saw. The movie is well made and well acted, and the disaster is so overwhelmingly destructive that watching is a bit like being crushed. I was wrung out and spent by the end.