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Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Absurd objects

In critique on June 25, 2009 at 12:45 pm

What to make of a film that makes you want to leave the cinema? Or a poem made up of numbers? Would you buy an invisible painting? What is their worth to a viewer or reader who innocently goes to an exhibit, reads a text or watches a film only to become an unwilling witness of the existence of such artifacts as a blank poem, or a motion picture on freeze frame from beginning to end? Of course, we can put all this to the level of theory and academic discourse, no problem.

But if you were to bring only one worthy art object or literary work with you on an island, would that ultra avant-garde piece have any chance of being chosen? The island, of course, is just a rhetorical device, but I suppose there’s always this one object or work in our life sufficient and inexhaustible enough to accompany us to our death.

The island hypothesis removes a work’s “excess baggage” of criticism, commentary and theory, allowing it to operate without the aura of institutional importance. I don’t know what to call it, but whatever is left after you remove all the excess baggage — its essence, core, substance, form, matter, haecceity, quidditas, radiance, ousia, hypokeimenon, etc. — is an index to the personal worth of a piece.

Will you honestly be happy to be stranded with Duchamp’s urinal, for instance? Unless you recognize in the work some cult value or aura (see Perloff on the aura of “Fountain”), then I suppose you’d still be happy to let the urinal accompany you. But let’s say you have a canvas with only a black dot on the center, a work by a famous artist extolled in the most reputable art journals. Its status as art has been defended staunchly by the fiercest and most intelligent critics in the field. Now you have that entire cathedral of theories to support that what is in your possession—a black dot—is a work of genius, because it interrogates the true meaning of art itself, questions the process of creating meanings, unsettles the viewer about what art should be, etc. Then suddenly you’re stranded on an island and a wish-giving mechanism can only grant you one book, poem or object of beauty to marvel at until you die. Are conceptual and theoretical intentions enough for that object to be chosen? Does it stand a chance?

Saying “yes” will not necessarily be a counterpoint, because it will only refute the very framework that made them socially significant in the first place. It seems to me that refusing the work is a more logical decision in the eye of the paradigm that institutionalized it, more in keeping with the object’s assault on meaning, tradition and establishment. Saying no is consistent with the purpose of that object, but saying no is also a kind of confession that the artifact has absolutely no personal worth.

What about the simple reader or viewer? By simple, we mean not giving a damn about that excess baggage of content outside the content—the dialogues, the discourse woven around the piece. These are people who want to confront the work for what it is, because their concern is something else other than being radical or avant-garde. When they confront this bombardment of absurdity, it is perfectly acceptable for them to reject. Rejection is a healthy and legitimate response. And when they do, I hope manufacturers of such artifacts will have the decency to not call the audience stupid.

Anatomy of a fight scene

In video game on June 23, 2009 at 10:37 pm

The best hand-to-hand combat in the entire history of animation is the scene between Tifa and Loz in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. It’s only 2 minutes. Click here if you haven’t seen it yet.

The fight occurs in the ruins of an old church. The secret ingredient in the setting is the small patch of grass. This is significant because the image serves a poetic function in the original story. A patch of grass inside a ruined church, illuminated by a beam of sunlight — any gamer will recognize this as a visual literalization of the game’s extended metaphor, which is the character of Aeris. In any case, its presence adds more texture to the scene and, in terms of sound, gives more contrast to the series of thuds throughout the fight.

Before the actual fight begins, there is an establishing shot showing the fighters, with the camera at 90 degrees with respect to the imaginary axis connecting the two subjects. In order to invoke tension, a child spectator moves to the foreground while the camera reacts in a reverse follow action, as if to collide with her and unsettle the viewer.

The next series of shots presents the attack stance of each fighter. We see a close-up of Tifa’s hand wearing a glove, then a medium shot of Loz showing his gauntlet. This conventional shot-countershot technique, repeated in many parts of the action, is most crucial in the beginning if it is the intention of the director to make the outcome of the fight unknown to the viewer. The purpose is to establish the “balance of power” between fighters by having a symmetrical duration scheme in the shot reverse shot at the start of the fight.

Before a character makes his/her “first move”, the camera passes over the axis to signal this high-suspense moment. The effect on the viewer is that the impending danger developed in the preliminary shots is coming ever closer. The left/right relationship of Tifa and Loz at the start is reversed from this point onward.

Finally, we have another (briefer) shot reverse shot before Tifa dashes from the left of the screen to punch Loz offscreen. Then we see a cutaway of the child spectator and a cutback to the shot with Tifa having reached Loz. The purpose of the cutaway is to decrease the cinematic duration for Tifa to physically and realistically reach Loz, thereby hastening the pace of the attack.

Tifa continually punches Loz and pushes him to the right of the screen. This is accompanied by dollying with the subjects to keep them onscreen. Then to break the quickness of the successive actions of punching, a freeze frame shot shows Tifa readying her leg to kick Loz. This sudden pause signals two things: a more intense hit and the use of a new “tool”. The intense kick is a sub-climax in the action because it ends Tifa’s series of hits and begins Loz’s first aggressive reaction. This makes the use of a freeze frame shot all the more appropriate.

We are then shown two reaction shots showing a determined expression on Tifa’s face and a triumphant-looking Loz. This serves as a cue for the next series of shots where Tifa tries to develop her sequence of punches and Loz retains his defensive position. Tifa slides down the floor and the dust motes are an excellent device for emphasizing that her move is dodged by Loz. (The dust is not shown but heard).

Tifa attacks again and this time there’s a very smooth take on the action combined with complex pivoting movements of the camera. The area covered is now longer in the sense that they have moved away from the patch of grass to another area in the church. The smooth movements are utilized in two long shots, one showing Loz throwing off Tifa in a rotating action. The freeze frame shots that follow prepare the viewer for Tifa’s death blow, which includes tossing Loz upward and throwing him back on the floor. The death blow is captured through a rotating camera action semi-independent of the movement of the subject.

In the last part, the “victory fanfare” theme we hear in the video game after every battle is played. Later on, it is revealed as the ring tone of Loz’s phone. Apparently, it’s an intertextual joke for gamers who had been conditioned to hearing the theme every time a fight ends.

Catholics and Protestants: the McLuhan difference

In communication on June 16, 2009 at 2:01 pm

The difference between Catholics and Protestants is the difference between oral and literate societies. More specifically, it is the difference between the intrinsic effects of oral and visual communication on one hand, and of print technology on another. Catholicism is to ritual as Protestantism is to rhetoric. The primary characteristic of the primary medium of the Catholic Church is visual; the primary medium of Protestantism is the printed word. Hence, the ultimate difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the difference between the “messages” (in the McLuhan sense, i.e. “personal and social effects”) of visual and verbal media.

The printed word, which is the technology of literate societies, is the technology of individualism. The intrinsic effect of print communication is the isolation of the person from the tribe. In “The Holy War: Mac vs. DOS”, where the author identifies Mac as Catholic and DOS as Protestant, Umberto Eco writes:

[DOS/Protestantism] allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

This observation confirms Marshall Mcluhan’s hypothesis of the individualizing effect of print, which is the technology of Protestantism. It is not surprising, therefore, that Protestants are divided into a multitude of sects, each taking liberties in interpreting the Scripture. This is a consequence of Solo Scriptura (the Scripture has sufficient authority in salvation), which necessitates not only the study of the Word of God as such, but of the word as such. The destiny of all Protestant theology is hermeneutics. And Protestants cannot form the same global village that Catholics have because of the polysemic effects of verbal signs which they depend on as the sole source of salvation.

Catholicism resembles a global village because of the nature of its primary medium — the visual image. Catholics “see” the same palpable thing. The consequence is the proliferation of rituals and traditions, akin to pre-literate societies. But Protestants suffer an “inner torment” because they individually imagine different things, because their faith demands a confrontation of the polysemy of signs.

Contrary to the notion that Protestants are more communal than Catholics, the Catholic Church is a much more communal faith, if we consider its deep structure of ritual and tradition. Protestants, though they meet more often, and sing and dance more often in their joyous gatherings, are sentenced to their own individual faiths.

Catholic and Protestant theologies are effects of the media they depend on.

Bhagavad Gita

In book review on June 16, 2009 at 1:36 pm

The Gita is part of the long epic Mahabharata. Some consider it as part of the Vedas, which are the oldest sacred texts of Sanskrit literature. Holy scripture or not, it’s one of the enduring sources of spirit in the spiritless conditions of our times. The Gita is in essence a didactic discourse which takes place in frozen time. The setting is a battlefield, and the speakers are the warrior prince Arjuna and the god Krishna. As the battle begins, Arjuna asks Krishna to place their chariot between two armies, and there the prince grieves because he has relatives and friends on two opposing sides. This petrifies his will. Arjuna declares that he would rather die than participate in the war. Like the dialogue between God and the Satan in the Book of Job, this serves as a prologue to discourse. Time stops and “even the flies are caught in midair between two wingbeats” (Introduction).

Gandhi says the gist of the Gita is the concept of renunciation of the fruits of action. It reconciles the necessity of action and of detachment through sacred duty. It echoes Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Player King in the play within the play:

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

The translator Stephen Mitchell calls the Gita a love song to reality and a psalm to life. The only code to live by is to “let go”. The Gita is comparable to Job, Ecclesiastes, and the dialogues of Chinese Zen masters. They all challenge a Zoroastrian moral world order, like the voice of God from the whirlwind in Job, which is echoed in the second book of Isaiah through an uncanny revelation:

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

This passage evokes Krishna’s declaration that he is a shatterer of worlds, but he cannot be considered evil for being such. At one point in the Gita, there is a terrifying theophany where Krishna shows his true form to Arjuna, with his billions of eyes and bellies, and all realities past, present and future existing in him. This reminds me of the ending of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where Govinda sees in the face of Siddhartha all of space and time. In the Gita, all things live in Krishna, whether good or evil. Zoroastrian duality breaks down, anticipating Hamlet’s “there is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and the Shakespearean evocation of Hamletist disinterestedness.

Faux Syllabus

In academia on June 7, 2009 at 2:48 pm

INTGAME
Introduction to Game Studies
3 units
Pre-requisite: Introduction to Cultural Studies (INTCULT), Introduction to Communication Theory (COMTHEO)
Pre-requisite to: Introduction to Ludology (INTLUDO), Hypertextual Narratives (HYPRTXT), Video Game Production (GAMEPRO)

Course Description

Just as communication theories are split between scientific and humanist perspectives — the former being positivist and the latter being qualitative, interpretive and critical in its approach — all scholarly endeavors on the subject of games are also split in the same schema. On one hand, we have the quantitative field of game theory pioneered by economists like John Nash or Robert Axelrod. On the other hand, we have game studies, which is a hybrid of cultural and communication theory.

The field of game studies has two traditional methodologies: narratology and ludology. The perspective of narratology proceeds from the assumption that the textuality of games is narrative in nature (i.e. that they are merely stories). Ludology, however, is an attempt to break from this tradition of narrativism and to conceptualize “game” as something else other than a story (e.g. game as a simulation). Ludology is useful when analyzing games like Pacman, Bantumi, Snake or any game whose textuality mereley consists of rules. For this course, we will center our attention on the praxis of storytelling, particularly the narratology of console role-playing games (RPGs), whose formal content are the novel and the film. The topic of ludology is reserved for another course.

Course Objective

To have a critical overview of the communicative aspects of computer games.

Course Outline

1. On what constitutes “gameness”
2. Meta-game-physics
3. Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects (as applied to the video game medium)
4. Story-living / on ergodic literature
5. The dynamics of agency
6. Hyperreality (Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco)
7. Elements of representation: the audio-visual interface and narration
8. Elements of simulation: complexity of controls, game goals, character and object structure, balance between user-input and preprogrammed rules, and spatial properties of the game world
9. Rules of play / game design / narrative architecture
10. Cultural framing of cyberdrama
11. The player with a thousand faces
12. Principles of narratology / ludologic studies
13. Mediality and metalepsis
14. Remediation
15. Interactive textuality

Course Requirements

1. The student is required to play and finish at least one console role-playing game from the Playstation 1 and 2 platforms before the midterm examination. All equipment are provided in the Gaming Laboratory (G412). A 20-page analysis is to be submitted before the finals. The suggested titles are:

a. Any title from the Final Fantasy series (exclude the tactical genre and MMORPG)
b. Valkyrie Profile
c. Suikoden II or Suikoden V
d. Wild ARMs
e. Legend of Legaia
f. Xenogears
h. (Your own choice, subject to professor’s approval)

2. Read the assigned scholarly article every week.

3. There are quizzes everyday based from the readings.

4. Submit exercises every week.

Student mutilates data set

In academia on June 7, 2009 at 2:46 pm

De La Salle University — a disgruntled finance major, co-author of an unfinished undergraduate thesis on debt maturity structure, performs what the University Convention Against Data Torture calls “heterodox methods in extorting valuable information from raw and untouched data sets.”

The academic police reports violent and immoral practices of mistreatment of numbers, including the bloody mutilation of the data’s upper and lower percentiles. “This is clearly an abuse of the windsoring procedure,” says an officer.

It was also established from the scenes of the crime, particularly in Excel and later on in Stata, that the variables were coerced into copulating with each other in the most vulgar manner. “We cannot tolerate how the culprit insults the numerical dignity of variables by threatening them to engage in significant relationships,” says the investigator. Three variables were identified to have been traumatized due to a linear threesome.

Furthermore, the student culprit did not discriminate on the sexes of the variables–whether they were independent or dependent, regressors or regressands, was a matter of indifference in these unethical acts. “Worse,” says the academic police, “they were also threatened to be endogenous, forcing a two-way exchange of bodily discharges.”

The said student had a nervous breakdown when the data set retaliated against his evil deeds by transgressing his a-priori expectations of the signs of their coefficients, putting his whole thesis in jeopardy.

The economics of brushing teeth

In academia, popular economics on June 6, 2009 at 12:40 pm

In The Economics of Brushing Teeth by Alan S. Blinder (1974), the author argues that economists have ignored a certain class of activities in the theory of human capital, such as brushing teeth. He says that the analysis can also be applied to equally important problems as “combing hair, washing hands, and cutting fingernails” (pg. 887).

Following from the human capital theory, each individual does whatever amount of toothbrushing to maximize his income (pg. 888). Blinder tells us that the “mother-told-me-so” explanation of toothbrushing rests on the fact that “offspring behave as if they maximize their income” since “the mother’s decisions are governed by income maximization for the child”.

The author then presents a theoretical model of toothbrushing by showing a wage maximization equation which involves the time spent brushing teeth as an independent variable:

Y=w(J,B)(T-B)+P, where Y=income, w=wage rate, J=index of job, B=time spent brushing teeth, T=time period available for working, and P=exogenously determined amount of unearned income.

Blinder puts the model into an empirical test and came up with a regression model for his data.

However, I must critique the article for relying on the value of the R-squared (i.e. “.79”) in concluding that the data confirm the prediction of the theoretical model. It is not, and never will be, the holy grail of econometrics.

Heideggerese

In academia, philosophy on June 6, 2009 at 12:27 pm

The day I attempted to write in the esoteric language of Heideggerese, this is what came out:

We will show how the ontological structure of every Lasallian student, denoted as ‘Being-in-DLSU’, discloses itself in that mode of Being that is ontically and proximally closest to Dasein-as-student — its average everdayness, and by using the ‘midterm week’ as a temporal horizon of the readiness-to-hand of the World-as-DLSU.

By denoting DLSU-during-midterm-week as ready-to-hand, we mean that the entities in our dealings (which thrust aside the circumspective character of Dasein) do not show themselves proximally as they are for themselves — we deal with entities-in-DLSU not in ontological terms, but in the mode of concern (e.g. we do not encounter DLSU as a building with white walls, but a place to take our examinations). Hence, my present preoccupation with midterm examinations in Development Economics, Law on Partnership and Corporations, and Quantitative Techniques in Business and Economics, as one having an ontic character, often stands in the way of looking at the structure of Being which these examinations possess.

Now, the lessons in my books, in their equipmentality and readiness-to-hand, suddenly bring to the fore their presence-at-hand in dealings cut to their own measure. Such dealings include the activity of reading them in Starbucks and finding out that I cannot understand the concepts. This incapability to understand disrupts my concernful absoprtion with my equipment (pages, text, graphs, pens). I then find myself along with entities which are in the mode of obtrusiveness — those concepts I failed to comprehend, which I may still understand at some other time, put me in a deficient mode of concern. This allows me to see the ‘whole workshop’ of studying, to which the equipmentality of my books and other instruments of studying belongs. It is then that the World-as-DLSU announces itself and my Being-in-DLSU is brought to the fore.

The character of insideness of Being in ‘Being-in-DLSU’  is not defined as a property of space. Rather, it refers to the formal existential expression that I am always already in a relation with my equipment which are made meaningful in the context of the totality of DLSU-as-World. This relation gives rise to dealings which either conceal or disclose the Being of entities, and in that play of concealment and disclosure, the world announces itself.

Macbeth

In book review on June 5, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Why read Macbeth, or why read Shakespeare at all? To magnify the horrific event which is the murder of King Duncan, the bard doesn’t say how Macbeth’s hand is full of blood; rather, he toys with the hyperbolic possibility that the bloody hand can stain the entire ocean:

…this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red

During the murder scene, there is a knock on the door of the castle, and the porter, who is unaware of the crime, proceeds to open the door, saying, “Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub?” I don’t know about other readers, but when I reached this passage where the porter of Inverness is mischievously pretending to be the porter of hell, I literally experienced goose bumps. Here you have a couple who just murdered the king inside their own castle, and then suddenly the porter, who doesn’t know anything, starts role-playing as the devil in a rather lighthearted way. The humor becomes very dark, and the irony turns Inverness at the night of the murder all too real.

The events in Macbeth are still an enigma. One cannot locate a central and singular cause to Macbeth’s deeds. Is it simply because of “vaulting ambition”, the work of fate, or just some evil operation men do not know (e.g. Macbeth seeing a dark vision where the handle of a dagger seems to provoke him into executing the crime)? Nevertheless, we know that Macbeth has freedom to act, based from his soliloquies, where he confirms his own resolve to kill Duncan and everyone who becomes an obstacle to his ambition. What makes the ambivalence so appealing is that, on the one hand, you have the working of destiny, and on the other, Macbeth’s self-determination.

When I reached the following lines, I could not move on to the next passage because I was compelled by their remarkable beauty to have them memorized. Spoken by Macbeth after the death of Lady Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The negative wisdom here competes with Ecclesiastes.

I’ve read Macbeth more than a year ago, and rereading it now gives an entirely different level of wonder. When I was in first year, I watched a Filipino and comic adaptation of Macbeth in the College of St. Benilde. It was a bad production, but it worked! I left the play admiring lines such as “Stars, hide your fires” in Filipino, and I realize now that Shakespeare as Shakespeare had burst through, transcending the failed spectacle of the performance.

Plato’s Republic

In book review on June 5, 2009 at 3:45 pm

I do not know what is in Plato that makes me want to train my body physically, listen to classical music, eat good food, read great works, engage in conversation, and perform all exercises imaginable about the care of the self. For American philosopher Allan Bloom, The Republic is the supreme book on education (see “The Student and the University” in The Closing of the American Mind). I consider it as a monumental guide to the ordering of one’s soul, or a benevolent spiritual companion—Virgil, Falstaff, or Sancho Panza. It tells you about the best things to learn and do in this life; you don’t have to agree, but it invigorates you just the same about the question of the good life.

The best way to encounter Plato is to take him personally, to read his work as someone with real and immediate concerns about life, not as a political scientist, literary critic, or philosopher. A piecemeal confrontation with The Republic will do nothing but magnify Socrates’ errors, aside from highlighting his greatest contribution in ethics, politics, metaphysics or methodology, and obscuring the more important virtues of the text. This is why the ordinary student generally dislikes Plato, and this dislike takes the form of academic contempt (for there are so few who read him voluntarily that most people are not qualified to like or dislike his works on personal terms). This contempt is made clear when a casual student in the humanities or social sciences cannot speak of Socrates without adding a modern critique. He or she then confuses this academic knowledge, culled from modern theories, as a personal response to the text. In reality, this kind of reader lacks a response. Susan Sontag said that our fixation on interpreting content has something to do with not knowing how to react toward a given piece.

Too much is being said about the book’s manifest virtues—its statement on the nature of justice and the ideal State, its position against mimesis and poetry, etc.—that the latent virtues, which are more important, since they implicitly speak about incorruptible friendships and immortal conversations, are left out. The Republic is a book about the self and the soul more than it is about the disciplines. We must prize it not for its conclusions, but for its eternal questions and brave attempts to define the good life. I have been reading The Republic since last year (given to me as a precious gift during my 20th birthday), and today I have reached the last words of Book X. Jacques Derrida said that one never finishes reading Plato, admitting that, with so much respect and reverence, the scholar still feels like being on the threshold of understanding. Hence, it will be very hard to evade the influences of the book, and I promised myself to read it again and again.