Archive for April, 2013

‘In the Vault’: Seinfeld and the Language Game of ‘Nothing’

Posted in criticism, literature, philosophy, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by drayfish

 Seinfeld-Cast-seinfeld-43506_1024_853

IMAGE: Seinfeld (Castle Rock Entertainment; NBC)

I have been sinking back into some older television of late – classic Simpsons (to ameliorate the collective scar tissue of the last decade of that seemingly un-killable show), Law and Order (McCoy!  I love you, McCoy!), and Larry Sanders (how exactly can Jeffrey Tambor play despicable, pathetic and adorable at the same time?!  …What, is he, a witch?)  But the show that has leapt out at me most profoundly, that I have been able to view on a whole new level in this welcome return, is Seinfeld.

Widely considered to be the greatest sitcom ever made, Seinfeld has spawned a parade of imitators that have sought (and frequently failed) to emulate its deceptively simple chemical composition.  Following on from Seinfeld’s template, but injecting a little more saccharine romance, Friends similarly concerned itself with the lives of young adults surviving New York in a state of arrested development; and it likewise revolved around a group that meets to yammer about their day at the local coffee shop, frequently getting distracted by the particulars of dating and relationships.  Shows like How I Met Your Mother have drawn inspiration from Seinfeld’s playful vocabulary, trying to engineer terminology like ‘suit up’ and the dating ‘Lemon Law’ and the many governing strictures of ‘The Bro Code’.  Always Sunny in Philadelphia has proudly declared itself ‘Seinfeld on crack’, steering characters already skewed toward selfishness straight into the abyss of a destructive, deluded chaos.

But to me, Seinfeld at its best has always worked under a wholly different dynamic than the rote summaries people sometimes use to encapsulate it would suggest.  It rather operates at a level of discourse and play articulated best in the discussions of the language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was …okay, to be honest, not such a funny guy.

The cliché is to describe Seinfeld as a show about nothing.  Indeed, it is a description that the show itself mischievously encouraged in its fourth season, when George and Jerry conceive of the sitcom pilot Jerry (a show-within-a-show that, ironically, came to be geared around by a zany sitcom plot about a court-ordered butler).  They refer to their invented program, itself inspired by their ‘real’ life in the fiction of the sitcom, literally, as, ‘A show about nothing’; as George explains to the baffled NBC executives:

‘But nothing happens on the show.  You see, it’s just like life.  You know, you eat, you go shopping, you read, you eat, you read, you go shopping…’

Often considered ‘anti-television’, Seinfeld seemed to subvert all the sitcom conventions of character and narrative.  Revolving around four rather narcissistic people, figures locked together in a strange interdependence that would, according to show creator Larry David, contain ‘no hugging’ and ‘no learning’, it observed the moments in-between the usual sitcom ‘moments’.  In Seinfeld, no one’s boss was coming over to dinner; no one delivered a baby in an elevator; no one had a zany wedding, and needed to be talked out of their cold feet with a syrupy ‘awwwww…’ from the audience.  (Indeed, one gets the sense that had the audience said ‘awwwww…‘ to anything that was depicted on that soundstage David would have had them forcibly removed from the studio and hurled into a ditch.*)

Instead, its episodes frequently revolved around scenarios in which (at least superficially), the plot appeared to be happening elsewhere, and this quartet are left distracted by the little stuff: waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant; trying to find a lost car in a garage; taking a subway ride; bickering over the size of a salad; trying to get the hell out of Florida while arguing about a gift pen; trying to make it to a dinner party with a marble rye.  It was the show that concentrated on the ‘nothing’ going on behind the conventional television ‘somethings’ that had grown tediously stale.

But while ‘nothing’ is a snappy summation – one that hints at the inimitable tone of its plots – it belies the genius of the real subject matter into which the show delved: the connective tissue at the heart of every episode.  Because in actuality, the whole of Seinfeld , and the wellspring from which it draws its masterful comic sensibility, is about grammar – about testing the application of language amongst a circle of like-minded language users.  George, Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer each play out the normative social influence of behavioural and ideological concepts.  They test words and play out their meanings.  They perform, in a very real sense, comical versions of the language-games proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher concerned throughout his life with the way in which language functioned, came to see human communication as an endlessly expanding, continuously fluctuating organism governed by use – by grammar.  In his second major work, Philosophical Investigations, he described language like a city, constantly expanding, being built upon, renovated and remade:

‘Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.’**

Whenever new terminologies are introduced (scientific and medical terms, new forms of technology, slang and definitions) our language – like a city – grows and adapts to make room for these words, and their new applications.  But we have to know these terms and their meaning; see them applied, to learn the grammar of their usage.

Otherwise, as Wittgenstein notes, we are so alienated from this grammar that we will fail to understand what is being said.  As he observes later in the book in one of his most famous statements:

‘If I lion could talk, we could not understand him.’***

What Wittgenstein is essentially saying here – using the example of a beast given the power of speech – is that language requires more than just knowing the definitions of a list of words.  It’s about being attuned to their context, to the subtleties of their use.  In the case of the lion – magically granted the power of human speech or not – his grammar, his frames of reference (or in Wittgenstein’s terms, his ‘forms of life’), would nonetheless remain so alien, so divorced from our own experience, that we would still be unable to comprehend one another anyway.

It would, on a much smaller scale, be like getting dropped into the middle of a Seinfeld episode, suddenly witness, with no establishing perspective, to a bunch of people jabbering about ‘Mimbos’, ‘shrinkage’ and being ‘anti-dentite.’  Without the necessary back story, we would, like the lion, suddenly have no idea what these words meant – recognising their sounds, but oblivious to their unnatural applications, seemingly locked behind an abstracted code.

Wittgenstein therefore came to argue that the only means to explore the way in which language makes meaning was to examine its grammar – to look at how language is being applied at the very moment of its use, in localised examinations of speech that he called ‘language-games’.  One such example of these games was an examination of various uses of the word ‘blue’.  After all, the word ‘blue’ could be an adjective, a noun; it could be one of (or all of) a series of colours; even a state of mind:

‘Is this blue the same as the blue over there?   Do you see any difference?’–

You are mixing paint and you say ‘It’s hard to get the blue out of this sky.’

‘It’s turning fine, you can already see blue sky again.’

‘Look at what different effects these two blues have.’

‘Do you see the blue book over there?  Bring it here.’

‘This blue signal-light means . . . .’

‘What’s this blue called? – Is it “indigo”?’****

‘Blue’, Wittgenstein reveals, is not simply a label applied to a physical or conceptual object.  It can have a myriad of meanings in a multitude of circumstances, all defined by its grammar and discerned by language-users familiar with these uses effortlessly in the moment of its utterance.

And it is precisely these kinds of explorations of language that are undertaken in every episode of Seinfeld, as each week we watch these characters explore – through the myriad potential for meaning that they can engender in their discussions – their own linguistic suburb in the city of language.

Indeed, it helps explain why the show has created such a wide and ubiquitous lexicon.  From ‘Yadda-yadda-yadda’, to putting something ‘in the vault’, to ‘re-gifting’, to ‘close-talkers’, ‘high-talkers’, and ‘low-talkers’, Seinfeld has arguably contributed more definitions and turns of phrase to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare.

And the reason that these definitions catch on – when other programs that try to mimic this style fail – is because Seinfeld scripts do not simply label some social phenomenon and expect the viewer to look on with a distanced, wry smile – they play it out, exhibit how applicable it is for its given circumstance.  The show’s stories build their momentum by rolling around a premise and allowing its validity or otherwise be tested through application.  The characters tease out its possibilities, with the viewer themself drawn into this conceptual exploration, invited to participate in the interrogation of social norms and pondering the foibles of human behaviour.

When is it appropriate to pee?  Only in the bathroom, or in the shower of the YMCA?  (And indeed, do pipes all go to the same places?)  Can ‘You are sooooooo good-looking’ be used in lieu of ‘God bless you’ when someone sneezes?  Exactly how far does one have to penetrate the nostril before a scratch becomes a pick?  Are you in a ‘relationship’ if you have an implied date, daily phone calls, and there is Tampax in your house?  What are the rules of ‘double-dipping a chip’?

And on the wider scale – comically evoking the contextual conflict in Wittgenstein’s lion example – we can witness the way in which the rules of one group of language-users rub up against with the rules of another, resulting in a case of ‘Worlds Collide’.  When George is dating Susan, and she seemingly befriends the group without him, ‘Independent George’ suddenly threatens to be subsumed by the social expectations of ‘Relationship George’:

‘You have no idea of the magnitude of this thing.  If she is allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza as you know him ceases to exist.  You see, right now I have “Relationship George”.  But there is also “Independent George”.  That’s the George you know.  The George you grew up with.  Movie George.  Coffee shop George.  Liar George.  Bawdy George.  …. And he’s dying Jerry!  If “Relationship George” walks through this door he will kill “Independent George”.  A George divided against itself cannot stand!’

Indeed, it is when Susan starts using the language of ‘Independent George’ – declaring that she will put something in ‘The Vault’ – that George specifically begins to see the walls between his behavioural selves crumbling.*****

Perhaps the best example of this kind of language-game play, however, comes in the episode ‘The Alternate Side’, in which Kramer gets a bit role in the project of another loquacious New Yorker, Woody Allen.  Having impressed the filmmaker with an act of unintentional slapstick, Kramer is offered a tiny speaking part (literally elevated from extraneous onlooker to language-user), and is asked to deliver the line,

‘These pretzels are making me thirsty.’

When Kramer returns to Jerry’s apartment to relay this news, he shares with the others the line he is tasked with delivering.  George, Jerry and Elaine each offer suggestions on how best to convey the phrase’s meaning.  Elaine screws up her face, smacking her lips as though trying to banish the salt from her palate, seemingly surprised to discover, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty…’  Jerry meanwhile, dismissing her effort, declares, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty,’ over-earnestly slicing the air with his hand.  George, offering an overwrought interpretation, bores a hole in the table with his stare as he burbles, ‘These pretzels… are making me thirsty!‘ in a tone of barely contained rising-crisis.  Kramer is unsatisfied with them all, and although vowing to work on the line further, to continue trying to find its most suitable inflection, seems resolved to embrace his own vaudevillian delivery, all but winking into the camera as he grins, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!’

No consensus is reached, and each character goes their own way, each chasing down their individual plotlines.  However, at the end of every one of these excursions, George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer return to the line, this time investing it with genuine and contextual meaning.  Kramer continues to roll the line around in his mind, mystified that he cannot seem to invest the statement with feeling: ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty?’  George, unhinged by the stress of failing to repark an increasingly complex Tetris game of cars, screams the line as a displaced non sequitur out of the apartment window, ‘THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY!’  Elaine, choked with discomfort at trying to break up with her boyfriend – who has just suffered an incapacitating medical scare – squirms, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty…’ through awkward laughter.  And Jerry, seething with contempt at a rental car employee who has just informed him he will be responsible for paying the damages, despite his having bought the insurance, spits, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!‘  Just as Wittgenstein displayed in his examples of the word ‘blue’, in each of these instances, the phrase takes on dramatically new and singular meaning dependent upon the context of its use.

When George and Jerry conceive of the premise for their show-within-a-show – the mise en abyme that reflects upon the fiction’s larger structure – their description of ‘Nothing’, and a ‘show about nothing’, is not meant to indicate that it will be boring, about depicting emptiness, or the negation of purpose; instead it is about minutiae, about the ineffable strings of usage that govern behaviour, that dictate meaning, and that consequentially allow us to function as a community.  As George would elsewhere poignantly shout:

We’re living in a community here!

And so, for a show that purports to be about ‘nothing’, the show reveals itself to concern the most profound and central ‘something’ of all.  Seinfeld, in celebrating the seeming ‘nothingness’ that binds all verbal communication, exposes the centrality of linguistic communion – of the ineffable ties that define all human speech, and the shared experience that invests these applications with meaning.  As Wittgenstein would say, it’s about language-games: who knows them; how they are being employed.

The genius of the Seinfeld program is that each week we get to watch these concepts, these definitions, play out, watch them effortlessly, organically stirred into usage.  Each episode is a language-game, teasing out the implications of these descriptors, validating or disproving their acceptance into the communal parlance.  In Seinfeld we are drawn into that circle.  Made an unseen occupant of that diner booth.  We know the context.  We’ve seen the usage.

We get it.

 seinfeld at monks

IMAGE: Seinfeld (Castle Rock Entertainment; NBC)

* According to his own account on the Seinfeld DVDs, he even despised, and actively discouraged the audience from applauding when Kramer slid into scene.

** Philosophical Investigations #18.

*** Philosophical Investigations, II xi, p.223.

**** Philosophical Investigations #33.

***** And this play with grammar is even true in its last two, far broader (and arguably less satisfying) seasons after Larry David had left as show-runner.  Although the series had turned into something of a weekly comic cryptic crossword – with three or four seemingly disparate narratives that would somehow interweave by the endpoint – the comedy nonetheless came from knowing just how disconnected those through lines were before they were given new agency in the context of the show’s resolution.  Kramer meaninglessly wandering around with a meat slicer suddenly became crucial to Elaine when she had to feed a dog through the crack under a locked door.

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And Now For Something Completely Stupid…: Critic’s Corner

Posted in art, criticism, stupidity with tags , , , , , on April 20, 2013 by drayfish

[This past week was my birthday, and so, I will be taking a one week sabbatical to celebrate.  Instead, a good friend of mine, Finnius McPhail, critic in the fine arts for ProtoRationale Journal (a person and publication that I totally did not just make up) will be standing in to offer his analysis of a young, up-and-coming visual artist, four year old Olive Jenkins.]

Olive Jenkins Australia

IMAGE: Australia, by Olive Jenkins, Age 4

CRITIC’S CORNER

Olive Jenkins’ post-modern manifesto, Australia, dissolves the boundaries of contemporary art by forcing the viewer to reinterpret their own placement within a futile dialogue of accumulative knowledge and perception. Jenkins asks us to revisit our inherited ideologies of what modern art should be, and what value it should be granted in our tumultuous political climate. Are we not all the disenfranchised figures that Jenkins depicts adrift in a yawning abyss of baseless rationality?

‘Repent!’ Jenkins seems to demand, for in her merciless canvas we are frozen in awe, transfixed by the horrible clarity of a truth that she compels us to confront. We are alone beneath an unpitying sun, our ‘landscape’ is barren, and we are its disenfranchised, prodigal children, returning home from an aborted quest for meaning, our souls flayed raw by the insistent knowledge that for all our conceptual evolution, we are but scattered ash, flotsam in the gnarled wreckage of a social structure, blind to the futility of self-assessment.

All this Olive Jenkins, Age 4, says in her chilling indictment, through a masterful command of her art. And for this she should be in equal parts celebrated, respected, and perhaps feared.

– Reviewed by Finnius McPhail, Fine Art Critic for ProtoRationale Journal

Alone Together: The Bat-Family and Narrative Trauma

Posted in comics, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by drayfish

Batman Crew Rooftop by Damion Scott

IMAGE: The Batman Crew by Damion Scott

Last month the comic book iteration of the ongoing Batman saga suffered a savage blow when the most recent incarnation of Batman’s protégé, Robin, was killed in action.  In this current version of the narrative, the boy wonder was Bruce Wayne’s own son, Damian Wayne (his mother was Talia al Ghul) – thus his death marks not only the loss of Batman’s partner in his crusade for vengeance, but also the devastating personal tragedy of losing a child.*

DC comics decided to symbolically acknowledge the enormity of Wayne’s grief by stripping away some of the primary narrative devices with which the comic book medium communicates.  Written by Peter J. Tomasi and illustrated by Patrick Gleason, Batman and Robin #18 (the first in that series set after the murder of his son) was an issue that made the bold choice to be conveyed entirely in silence.

Gone were speech bubbles and narration.  The cacophony of internal monologues and explosions and fisticuffs fell away.  Batman was depicted alone in a sorrowful quietude, trying to fill the numb, yawning hush that enveloped him by beating down a gauntlet of thugs, using them to tangibly manifest his rage and self-loathing, and brutalising himself for the selfish folly of adding another victim to the altar of his quest for vigilante justice.

It is a powerful vignette in the history of Batman, a reminder of the familial trauma that first set Wayne on his subversively heroic path – inspiring him to remake himself into a symbol of fear – and offering new proof of the ultimately sacrificial nature of this Sisyphean quest.  Damian is, of course, not the first loss that Batman has faced in his expansive, multifaceted career.  Indeed, another Robin – hot-headed street kid Jason Todd, had already similarly been killed, savagely beaten down by the Joker (only to be subsequently brought back from the dead)**; Batgirl was gunned down and paralysed, also by the Joker (although she appears to be currently healed); and one-time ill-fated Batman replacement Jean-Paul Valley, or Azrael, eventually gave his life in the pursuit of justice (Joker wasn’t involved as far as I know, so maybe that one will stick).  But even with the tragic evidence for Batman’s ruinous journey continuing to stack up, Wayne still finds himself surrounded by those who choose to join him in his fight.

It is also a tale that (silently) speaks directly to a strange incongruity at the centre of Bruce Wayne’s psyche: his justified fear in endangering those dearest to him, and his irrational longing to nonetheless share a fundamentally solitary calling.  And it is this repeating pattern, this seemingly unavoidable gravitational pull toward creating a makeshift crime-fighting (sometimes literally) family, that reveals a wonderfully complex and irrational contradiction at the heart of the Batman mythos…

Because when one thinks of the image of Batman, the picture that springs to mind is often the lone vigilante, waging a one-man war on crime – a stark, solitary silhouette cutting the skyline from his perch above, and abstracted from, the human community he seeks to protect.

He works alone.  Solitary.  One man against the cold unfeeling void…

And yet…  There’s Alfred.  And there’s Robin.  And Nightwing.  And Batgirl too.  And Oracle.  And Azrael.  And Red Robin.  And Huntress.  And both Commissioner Gordon and his moustache.  And the Birds of Prey.  And Catwoman, sometimes.  Even Superman gets a guernsey on occasion.  …Indeed, from what I understand, the storyline in which Damian died was actually part of a continuity where Wayne has effectively corporatized the Batman identity, turning the urban legend of ‘The Batman’ into a worldwide, crime-fighting industry with a sprawling staff.***

Even in the most recent Nolan film – part of a brooding trilogy that depicts Wayne as a broken, sorrowful figure, alone on an introspective quest for peace that is literalised in the disquiet of Gotham’s criminal underworld – Batman still manages to pick up a sidekick.  In the figure of John Blake (real name ‘Robin’), a devoted police officer who becomes disenfranchised by the bureaucratic restraints and deceit of a corrupted legal system, who decides to follow in the wake of the resurrected Batman, eventually, perhaps, going on to take up his mantle…

Likewise in Frank Miller’s acerbic take on the dénouement of the Batman saga, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), the colourful sprite fighting alongside the Goya shadow is an integral, unavoidable part of the equation.  Just as the gristled, alcoholic, almost burnt-out Wayne is reconditioning himself to reclaim the cape and cowl, he is soon training Carrie Kelley, the tenacious thirteen year old, to likewise take up her predecessors’ tragic mantle as the new Robin.

Somehow, despite himself, this character, wracked with inconsolable sorrow and introverted rage, inevitably amasses a family of likeminded misfits, inspired to follow him on his impossible journey to curb the felonious extremes of the social order….

In Batman and Me (California: Eclipse, 1989), Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, recalls the conception of the Robin character, remembering the intentional contrast, both aesthetically and emotionally, that the inclusion of this companion would provide:

‘The brightness of Robin’s costume also served to brighten up the visuals and served as a counterpoint to Batman’s sombre costume.  More significantly, the addition of Robin gave Batman a permanent relationship, someone to care for, and made him into a fatherly big brother rather than a lone avenger’ (p.46).

Robin (and arguably all those other companions that have followed in his wake) allowed other aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality to be refracted and revealed through their interactions.  Batman consequentially grew in complexity and purpose, and his solitary vigil, ironically, was granted dimension by being shared.

Sure Batman is badass, and sure, some of the heroes he peripherally inspires simply want to ride alongside the smart guy in the sweet car with the nifty gadgets, but the true faithfuls, the ones who not only fight with him, but invest enough in his mission to emblazon themselves with his insignias – the Robins, the Batgirls, the Batwomans, the Nightwings (okay there’s only one of him) – those who, in the case of Dick Grayson and John Blake, are even willing to literally take on his mantle if need be; these figures are drawn to the man behind the mask, which informs and deepens the sacrificial poetry of his purpose.  And so, even in Frank Miller’s cynical vision, when the aged Bruce Wayne is walled up in his mansion like a psychotic Howard Hughes, we still see him travelling with the flash of bright colour that is the new Robin, her vibrancy and hopefulness still invading his world to offer a stark relief to his plight.

Even more than the contrast that such a character evokes, Kane foresaw that Robin would provide a compelling imaginative invitation for readers, a window through which the audience could project themselves into the Batman legend:

‘young boys reading about Batman’s exploits would project their own images into the story and daydream about fighting alongside the caped crusader as junior Batmen.  I thought that every young boy would want to be like Robin’ (p.46)

We were able to ride along with this tortured icon, to aid him in his fight, even if we could not truly share his pain.

Again and again it appears that Batman presents a flame to which his cadre of vigilante moths (and the audience that they embody) are inexorably drawn – inspired by his mission statement, no doubt, but ultimately stirred by the man himself, by his tenacity and purpose.  Whenever people get near Bruce Wayne they see a man so broken, so torn up with grief that his only means of profitably controlling that emotional maelstrom is to funnel it into an ultimately self-destructive altruism.  They, and we, feel compelled to help him, to try and save him just as he longs to save others.  But he’s certainly not going to see a psychiatrist, and his moral code is so engrained that any chance of taking solace in a healthier ‘normal life’ seems to him to be a betrayal of his social responsibility.  So instead – ultimately buying into the beneficial role that he serves – we join him in scampering across rooftops and helping kick bad guys in the face, resigning ourselves to an abstracted hope: if we can’t beat those personal demons, we’ll just facilitate smacking around some physical ones and hope that the metaphor eventually sinks in…

And so, this recent killing of Robin operates on a curiously self-reflexive and disturbingly experiential manner: the narrative itself is grieving the absence of the audience’s own invested point of view, both their unique perspective upon the depicted events and the sounding board that they would usually provide to the experience.

Both literally and metatextually, in the aftermath of this killing, Batman is left with no one to talk to – a fundamental dialogue between reader and text egregiously fractured.  Thus Bruce Wayne is left wordless, fighting through a silent void in the wake of his loss.

Batman and Robin 18 silent issue

IMAGE: Batman and Robin #18, by Patrick Gleason

* I apologise that I do not know the finer details of the ongoing story arc, but I am reliably informed that he was killed by an adult, cloned version of himself (?!)  Man, comic books love them some surreal dramatic irony…

** And there is a tragic foreshadowing, perhaps, in Damian’s decision to steal Jason Todd’s costume to begin fighting crime against his father’s initial wishes.

*** Even Bat-Mite pops in from time to time to spread anarchy in his sycophantic emulation of the Dark Knight.

‘No More Vegetables Until You Eat Your Dessert’: Why Art is Fun, People!

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by drayfish

bioshock screen grab

IMAGE: Bioshock (Irrational Games)

A few weeks ago I was checking in on one of my favourite interwebby gatherings (here) to recharge myself with the spirited and welcoming discussion of the fine folks who call it home.  Them’s good people.

In the midst of one of many conversations about the expressive potential of the videogame medium, one of the contributors referenced a blog, in which the writer, known as J. Shea, dismissed the validity of videogames as art.  Now, of course, there is nothing new there – indeed, at this point that is a tediously familiar drum for naysayers to beat – but I do feel rather compelled to speak to the second half of Shea’s argument, in which, in his misguided attempt to rescue the term from the debasement of videogames, he offers one of the most depressing, and misjudged attempts to define Art that I have ever seen (‘Stories in Games: A Survey of Quality’, from Exploring Believability).

And so – and I mean this sincerely – if you don’t feel like subjecting yourself to the angry spittle of a very grumpy, very rambling man, shouting as if there were kids on his lawn, I encourage you to skip the post I am about to inflict upon you and continue on with your life.  I should also point out that while I am directing this response at Shea’s blog, it is not he himself that I am trying to attack (indeed, I have no idea who he is) – it is instead the mindset that he is espousing – an opinion of Art that I have heard elsewhere before, one that arrogantly disparages the capacity for certain mediums to even be considered Art, and posits that ‘worthy’ texts cannot, by necessity, be pleasurable…

You see, an hour before I was introduced to Shea’s blog post, I had been reading Jane Austen’s Emma and feeling happy.

I’m not teaching a class on it.  I’m not writing an article (well, I’m now about to use it as a petty cudgel, but you get my point…)  I was just enjoying the book.  Indeed, if I were to draw up a Venn diagram of that experience, it would be a perfect circle: Pleasure and artistic appreciation perfectly overlapping each other into an uninterrupted pie.

But then I read Shea’s piece – a piece that reasons (with some extremely narrow examples and some tiresomely reductive presumptions) that all videogames serve one specific purpose; and that logically this purpose does not fit into some his definition of what ‘Art’ is.

You know, true ‘Art’.  …Whatever that is supposed to mean.

It was at that point that I got sad.

I was discouraged firstly because (as all too frequently happens in commentaries like these) the parameters of what constitutes a ‘videogame’ had been so narrowed as to be utterly meaningless except in the unhelpfully specific battleground of this writer’s own head.  Here, the span of the ‘videogame’ medium – everything from handheld games diddled about with on a mobile phone while waiting for the bus, to worldwide multiplayer behemoths that give rise to competitive sports, to immersive narrative epics that allow players to invest in and influence fictions across several years, to innovative downloadable games designed to engage their player in as-yet unexplored experiential dialogues between audience and text – had been arbitrarily reduced to Spec Ops: The Line, the first Bioshock, and Final Fantasy 8.

Somehow, all videogame narrative was thereby summarily reduced to nothing more than the pursuit of, and justification for, ‘cool stuff’.  All game narratives are slaves to their designs, Shea argues, and those designs are dictated by trying to load the experience with fun: explosive action, hilarious things to try, transitory playful indulgence…  Cool stuff.*  I mean, I’m sure I need not even bother to make this analogy, but that would be like reducing all poetry that has ever been written down to ‘the pursuit of rhyme’.  It’s a single element, of some verse.

…No, that’s fine.  Be sure to explode a single element out to make sweeping generalisations of the whole form.  That’ll be helpful.

But again, what I find most sad here is not that once more someone is ignorantly demanding that an argument still needs to be made for videogames to sit at the grown-ups table of Artistic potential**, it is that now it seems Art itself needs to be defended as being fun.  Because this piece not only unfairly maligns videogames as being unable to express anything of worth, it also reveals a wholly depressing (and frankly rather juvenile) misconception about what Art itself actually is.

Fundamentally, the blog posits that something fun, something designed to elicit pleasure in its audience, cannot therefore be Art.  Art, it argues, should instead be solely concerned with offering dry philosophical treatises, and compelling its audience to muse upon the deeper, important issues of life.  The example offered by the post is that Art must speak of human ‘isolation’ – a peculiarly specific, and tediously limiting dictate that is never helpfully elaborated upon.

But this notion, delivered in such an earnest, simplistic manner, is so patently ridiculous, and so at odds with the entire history of artistic creation and consumption, that I scarcely know where to begin.  (Literally, I’ve re-written the next paragraph several times now because I am dumbstruck by the absurdity of this concept…)

So if there is anyone out there who needs to be disabused of this notion, please take my word for it: Art is not some sombre, distanced, privileged means of expression intended to tower over its audience, dictating to them from afar what emotions and truths are appropriate to be explored, what experiences are worthy of exploration, nor that those experiences, by necessity, are not allowed to be fun.

At no point did Huxley, when he sat down to write Brave New World, say to himself, ‘Now, how do I make this book as tedious and unenjoyable as possible so that when students are forced to read it, they will know that it is “Art”, and not anything that they should bother to enjoy?‘  And (as my recent experience of reading Emma reminds me) when people gathered to read Jane Austen as a family by the fireside in years past, nobody was cursing their luck, lamenting, ‘Awww… damnit.  Now we have to learn something…’

Art talks with its audience.  It doesn’t condescend to them.  It’s not meant to frighten people away or stare down its nose.  It’s meant to invite its audience  in.  To start a conversation.  And that dialogue begins, frequently, in pleasure.  After all, you cannot delight, bewilder, or excite someone by making them feel unworthy of the attention (unless of course you are trying to make them feel small and unworthy – but not everyone is Ayn Rand).

What this blogger’s argument is essentially positing is that there is an absolute and necessary distinction between Art and fun.  In the Venn diagram of Pleasure and Worthy Artistic Expression, the two circles cannot overlap, because under such a severe definition indulgence becomes the kryptonite of insight.  By this logic, my reading of Emma is really only about me nodding along knowledgably as a young woman comes to know the truth of herself and her misapprehensions about life and love.  I’m certainly couldn’t be enjoying  it.  And Austen must have only written it to act as a turgidly instructive morality tale – definitely not to entertain.  Right?

So how, then, does Camus’ The Stranger – one of the funniest books I’ve ever read – not diminish itself because it injects a detached humour into an examination of human existentialism?  Because that’s fun, isn’t it?  How can there be fun in such a bleak, important narrative?  Surely Camus cannot have wanted to amuse his audience?  That really would be absurd…

What about Annie Hall?  A phenomenal piece of filmic Art – smart, snappy, with a statement to make about human experience and the metatextual potential of film  …Oh yeah, and it’s a comedy that is enjoyable as hell.  Does that not qualify?  Or Fight Club?  Whether you like the message or not, it is a text that speaks to human alienation and the loss of self in a progressively mass-marketed world – but again, it is one spectacularly fun film to watch…

annie hall screen

IMAGE: Annie Hall (United Artists)

Even in the examples that he chooses to (I think rather naively) offer, his argument doesn’t hold up.  His predictable mention of Hamlet?  …Yeah, because Shakespeare never wrote comedies, nor was acutely attuned to the commercial appeal of his work…  Please.  He was the most successful producer of his age.  He knowingly tailored every one of his plays to the dictates of his audience and their pleasure.  After all, there’s a reason that the stage is littered with corpses when Hamlet finally shuffles off his mortally coiled up bits: his audience loved it.  They – and we – loved them some gore, and watching the grand procrastinator go out in a blaze of furious, anarchic double-crosses and slaughter was an almighty ironic thrill.  One of the greatest disservices to Shakespeare’s legacy is this ignorant misconception that he was some cloistered poet genius, hermetically sealed away from his audience.  In complete contrast, the man was a masterful reader of his viewers – one who knew how to sculpt work that dually appealed to fans of ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art (whatever those distinctions might mean on any given day), creating something transcendent in the merger.

Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses might appear (to those who haven’t read it) to be rather daunting – filled with austere allusions and literary reverence – but in actuality it’s hilarious, and (although I’m sure many won’t believe me) actually a great deal of fun.  Joyce peppered the work with a great deal of comedy and smut and farce.  Well before Leopold Bloom wigs out in a brothel, even before his masturbatory jaunt on a beach (set to the percussion of fireworks), he decides to use the bathroom.  After breakfast he retires to his outhouse, where he sits to evacuate himself (in fairly graphic description), and while doing so reads a published piece of fiction.  He finishes the work, considers whether he might one day write one himself, and then tears out a page of it to wipe himself clean.  Art, even for Joyce, was not some remote, esteemed relic; frequently it is made to serve humanity’s most base and immediate needs – just as it does for Bloom.

And that, frankly, is what every artist worth a damn is trying to do: Art has always been inextricably bound to entertainment; artists have always tried to delight as well as communicate deeper truths.  This didactic, professorial notion of artistic statements that Shea (and those who would subscribe to such a premise) is proffering does not actually exist beyond clichés of beret wearing, red wine sniftering, art house cafes fantasised to have existed in the beat generation.

People might yawn now at the stiff pageantry of an ancient fresco, but those sanguine images were profoundly moving to their original, intended audience – not because they made ‘declarations about what life is’, but because they communicated the unutterable sublime.  Should Monet be struck from the record as a failed artist because his imagery failed to speak to human isolation, as this article describes?  He crafted scenes of luminescent elegance and a hyper-real surfeit of colour within which viewers could lose themselves, utterly enchanted – but he never did say anything ‘valuable’ about social interaction, so I guess he sucks too.  Staring into one of Goya’s darker frames can be like making a smoothie out of Saw 1 through 4 and chugging it down for the brain freeze – because it too was designed to affect its audience with a fearful, unnerving thrill.

In fact, the attitude of this blogger exhibits everything that is wrong with the pretentiousness that sours people from engaging with literature and fine Art.  Art is not – and should never be – a chore.  Putting gaming and appreciating Art on two sides of a spectrum that cannot touch, driving a wedge to separate them in the Venn diagram of expression, is dishearteningly ignorant.  Just because something is joyful does not mean it cannot be achieving an artistic end; just as solely because something is delicious doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy.

Such smug divisiveness has no place in legitimate artistic discussion.  Picasso can legitimately be appreciated for using bold, striking colours; Mendelssohn can just be enjoyed as beautiful melodies; Beckett can just be some hilariously weird stuff on a stage.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Art as entertainment, and nothing wrong with seeing in the realms of entertainment the potential for great Art.***

If this blogger’s argument were simply that games don’t operate like novels, then fine.  No argument here.  In fact: well done on pointing out a basic compositional reality.  I would like to add to the redundant observation pile that it is likewise difficult to paint a sonata, or to rhyme a photograph…  But this commentator said ‘Art’ – and that is simply too wide and magisterial and necessarily inclusive a terminology that it makes such disparaging and choking restrictions hysterically inadequate.****

So the problem is not that games don’t qualify as Art.  Ultimately the issue is precisely what this writer says in his opening paragraphs (without comprehending the irony in his statement): people bring their own definitions of Art with them.  And sometimes (as this blogger does) those people unjustly and naively attempt to dictate to everyone else what those narrow parameters should be.

This blogger not only sets up a reductive, unjust and impossible standard that he arbitrarily declares videogames to have failed, he further goes on to reduce the whole definition of ‘Art’ to such narrow subjective terms, wholly defined by his own ignorance (perhaps it would be kinder to say naiveté), that the entire discussion dissolves into irrelevance.  One ends up arguing with his personal limitations rather than the issue at hand.  One may as well be playing ‘What am I thinking?’

And if he cannot be bothered to even entertain the idea that his understanding of either topic might need expanding, or that his proudly arbitrary dismissal is a dead end rather than the invitation to debate he mistakenly believes it to be, it seems an exercise in futility trying to disabuse him of the several misapprehensions he has embraced.

Personally, I think it’s sad if this writer cannot see the pleasures in Art, or if he views only frippery and indulgence in games, but both are his right.  I would hope that one day he could outgrow such antiquated notions – both in his approach to videogames (which are, frankly, a rather easy target when their history is still so brief, and continues to test the potentialities within the limitations of their form), but even more so in his approach to the possibilities of Art.

Ultimately, however, videogames are far wider and filled with more potential than he seems to be aware; and moreover, Art is not the comically rigid canon of austere anachronism that he has dreamed up.

So considering that he seems to be unable to show any comprehension (let alone definition) of either ‘videogames’ nor ‘Art’, I would think it wise for him to not get so presumptuous in dismissing the possibilities of either.  Indeed, the very fact that he even equated ‘Art’ with ‘Narrative’ in so simplistic a one-to one-ratio in the first place is probably indication enough that his argument at present, has little to add to this debate.  In that Venn diagram his comments don’t even cut a sliver out of the sprawling, multifaceted, incomprehensibly vast pie that is Art…

[EDIT: To his credit, J.Shea responded to this post, and our discussion continues in the comments section below…]

File:Claude Monet - Springtime - Walters 3711.jpg

IMAGE: Springtime by Claude Monet (1872)

* One might well direct his attention to the purposefully dour and laborious game Cart Life to cure him of that misconception.

** Note I said ‘potential’, not unalienable right.

*** Although the music of Bruce Springsteen will in any context, at any time, be considered Art.

**** Indeed, if one wanted to be intentionally petty to this blogger (and perhaps I do), one might even categorise some of the examples he provides of his favourite videogame catch-phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ (so hip and surprising and revolutionary), with ‘dramatic irony’ in fiction (one of the oldest and most familiar forms of narrative self-reference in human history).

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