Category Archives: Research

A priori

March came and went, and now I find myself defending my dissertation in four days. It’s been a long road, since first coming here in 2004, and a lot of crazy shit has happened, but I’m finally graduating, finally finishing this educational path. It certainly has solidified this ethno-type of work as something I greatly enjoy and look forward to continuing in the years to come.

I’m booked and ready to head out to Montreal in mid-May for the Kinetik 4.0 festival. There will be lost of music, dancing, and plenty of interviews. After that I’ll be heading out to the mountains of Albuquerque to spend time with Travis, the founder of Human Skab, and shoot some additional footage for the documentary that we hope to finish within the next year.

Graduation is on April 30, at 2 PM. Should be interesting.

In other news, I’m still reading The Walking Dead, and the latest issue was completely fucked. I didn’t see that coming at all. I’ve also picked up the trade paperbacks for Alan Moore’s Promethea, which has started off promisingly. I also finally closed my PBP forums, and started creating a wikidot site to archive my campaign setting. I should  likely post about that in the near future.

I am looking for jobs now in the ethnomusicology market, and hope a prospect opens up soon. That is all I have to update, really. I have spent a great deal of time immersed in my dissertation work, and now that I am finished, I have to get back into some other media while I prep for my upcoming projects.

Scavenged Words

I ran into something interesting in my recent research. At first it seemed like a typo, but the more I dug the more I realized it was a cascading array of sloppy, mis-matched quoting amounting to a fascinating and hilarious mis-representation of words.

It began with the portion of my dissertation where I describe chronotopes. I wanted to provide a few examples of other usages of the concept in recent scholarship, and naturally I turned to a book written by Keith Basso in 1996, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Basso–in exploring the dynamic geography of the Cibecue Apache and the ways in which it is afforded “mnemonic pegs” on which to hang oral narratives–situates Bakhtin’s idea of the chronotope as a method for accessing such narratives and the time-space in which they are created and exchanged. Pursuant to this, Basso (on p. 62 of his ’96 publication) attributes the following passage to Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist (1981:7):

“[Chronotopes are] points in the geography of a community where time and space intersect and fuse. Time takes on flesh and becomes visible for human contemplation; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time and history and the enduring character of a people…. Chronotopes thus stand as monuments to the community itself, as symbols of it, as forces operating to shape its members’ images of themselves.”

Of course, I wanted to read this in context, since Bakhtin’s work is something of an inspiration to my own. But when I turned to page seven of the source, these words were nowhere to be found. I found it kind of odd, since this is the first time I’ve encountered such a thing. “Perhaps it’s a typo,” I suggested to myself, after which began a dizzying search.

After Scouring Bakhtin’s 1981 Dialogic imagination, translated by Holquist, I found reference to some of the words in this blockquote at the beginning of the essay on Chronotopes, but the words as written in Basso’s 1996 book were not found as contextualized. I searched the passage itself, and found an earlier publication by Basso (1984), in which he also claims this passage to be found on p. 7 of the translation of Bakhtin’s work (though in another referenced footnote the passage is said actually to be on pp. 84-85 the first two pages of the essay, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” which was where I found similar wordings but not the actual quote). Try as I might, I cannot find those same words as written anywhere in the 1981 Bakhtin. I see no reference to “community,” “geography,” or “human contemplation,” anywhere in the mix.

What was more suspicious was that Basso’s 1996 book contained several pages that he had written in the 1984 chapter verbatim, with no references or self-citation. Blatant self-plagiarizing. In a nutshell, in two separate places spanning 12 years, Basso points the same words toward p. 7 of the Bakhtin book where the passage just is not written.

Several sources have since cited the above quote as Bakhtin’s, simply stating “Bakhtin 1981:7″ (including Pryce 1999:93; Jordan 2006:182, who, quoting Basso’s surrounding text and Bakhtin’s supposed definitions simultaneously seems to suggest that Apache “mnemonic pegs” are also Bakhtin’s ideas; and Thornton 2008:17; several articles also utilize these words as if, as Basso suggests, they were written in the Bakhtin source).

I am left staring at the supposed citation (the 1981 work) confounded and wondering what I am missing. Perhaps I do not have all the facts? That would actually be a relief. Is it an issue of translation? I figured it couldn’t hurt to contact the man who translated Bakhtin’s words directly in the hopes that I could find the actual source of Basso’s citation, and read it in context (or at least discover that Basso constructed it himself), so I emailed Michael Holquist himself. Still haven’t heard back.

In all, I’ve been told that this would make a good article on chronotopes and research genres, and I agree. Before that can happen I would have to interview the parties involved; I wonder what people might say when faced with the question of the passage’s origin. The quote in question is full of good ideas, I just want to read it in context, and due to what appears like a series of perpetuated, sloppy mistakes, I can’t do that.

The Open Road

My trip to Cape Breton by way of motorcycle was quite the long haul. In total, I turned 5,739 miles, visiting fifteen states and two Canadian provinces. The majority of my time, however, was spent on Cape Breton Island, in Grand Narrows on the Barra Straight. I also stayed in Glace Bay, Sydney, Christmas Island, and North Sydney during my time in Cape Breton, and visited the Eskasoni Micmac reservation, Little Narrows, Iona, North Side East Bay, East Bay, Ben Eoin, Marble Mountain, The St. Andrew’s Channel, Big Pond, Middle Cape, Irish Cape, Irish Cove, and Johnstown, hearing all sorts of different musics (Particularly fascinating was the Sydney night life, but that is a story for a different time and place). During my travels in Cape Breton between Christmas Island and North Sydney, I caught a flat rear tire, which, after I successfully contacted a garage able to do the work, cost me a day of my time and $313.93 CAD (granted that’s only $306.04 USD, but with the “International Conversion Fee” my credit union charges, I closed the transaction at $338.97 USD). Other than that, I wasn’t delayed at all. The Yamaha V Star is a reliable bike.

Traveling long distances on a motorcycle really gives you time to think. I don’t mean the normal thinking one does when they’re planning what to eat for lunch that day, or what activity might best fill their weekend hours. I’m referring to deep contemplation, the kind that involves the wonderment of existence, analysis of memory and interaction, and the creation of new and alternative ideas. There’s no radio, plenty of numbing vibration and road noise, and there is no metal cocoon in which to fall asleep–just the seat, frame, and wheels between the rider and the road. I spent plenty of time unpacking the mysteries of what I had experienced in the field and thinking about the nature of genre and music–the topic of my dissertation. On a plane or a car (or both) I wouldn’t have had the same access to time and context to think things through on the same level.

There are many spiritual experiences on the back of a bike as well. One that stands out on my trip happened my first day’s ride. Traveling through Georgia, I was one of the few vehicles on the road in the early morning, save the freight trucks that were beginning their morning haul from Savannah to Tallahassee. One such truck–a blue-grey Peterbuilt towing a bed full of stone in a tarp-covered dumpster–was heading south on the far side of the divided highway where I rode north. I noticed the truck some half-mile away as I rounded a slight bend and began to climb a gradual slope in the road. A brown speck of a bird left its perch from the far side of the road as well and began to climb the crisp air, floating nearly forty feet above the asphalt. As it flapped and banked in a figure eight above the south-bound state highway, the truck drew close. I could see the bird dancing in the updraft of air caused by the Peterbuilt. The bird dove toward the truck in a decided move that at first had me convinced I was about to see a burst of feathers and blood on the tall, grey grill, but quickly it spread its wings to collect the compression of air caused by the forward motion of the vehicle. In an instant, the bird was thrust into the air high above the highway. I marveled at the scene, noting how in-the-moment it felt, which made me smirk a bit after which I smiled even wider at how silly it was to smirk by myself. That’s when I noticed the bird bank heavily to its right, which bent its trajectory over the median and toward the northbound roadway. It continued banking; I could see now that it was a turkey buzzard. It had an impressive wingspan of deep, brown feathers, upon which was nested the ugliest, red buzzard-face. It continued to appear even larger as its flight path seemed to be on a collision course with me. At the time I was doing around 70mph and despite the fact that all of these events happened in a matter of seconds, time seemed to slow down as I watched the buzzard head straight for me. I had enough time to mutter, “Oh, shit,” and duck, tucking my helmet-covered head behind the windshield nearly kissing the gas tank of the bike. Just as I ducked, I was convinced that the bird was about to collide with me, but nothing happened. I remained ducked for what seemed like five seconds after I passed my point of imminent collision, but nothing ever hit me. I looked around a bit but couldn’t see the buzzard. It was surreal and quite amazing.

Three things I wouldn’t want to do without on any future long-distance motorcycle rides:

1. A more comfortable seat. A waaaayyy more comfortable seat. My current setup has my pelvic bones in a state of duress after sixty miles of travel at highway speeds. Between sixty and one hundred miles of travel I began to enter a little ritual I like to call “Pants Dance.” This entailed constant readjustment of my position in the seat, brought about by shifting my weight from one side to another, stretching a leg out and placing a heel on the footplate, then switching sides. Doing so made it slightly more bearable to continue clocking miles by allowing blood to return to my tenderized gluteus muscles a few seconds at a time. I need a seat designed by someone who designs office chairs–something with a lot of padding and some lumbar support, perhaps with a bit of hydraulic shock absorption to counteract the vibration of the moving bike. Serioiusly, my gluteal muscles are so completely pulverized after an hour or two of riding that I can barely utilize them to stand.

2. Highway pegs. When your gluteul muscles are pounded into submission by hours-long vibration and centripetal force, it becomes painful to keep the knees in a bent position. Highway pegs allow a rider to stretch out his or her legs, decreasing the surface area that is punished by the seat and allowing less inhibited blood flow into the toes. My oral surgeon warned me to walk around a lot to avoid blood clots on the long trip, but he hardly needed to. After an hour or so of riding, followed by several painful minutes of the Pants Dance, I needed to find a place to pull over and walk around for ten minutes. This was absolutely essential. With highway pegs, I suspect that I’d still stop every hour or two along the road (I mean, I need to get gas ever 150 miles anyway), but at least when I stopped I’d be far less broken than I am with my current setup.

3. Cruise control. I should say right off that I’ve got this problem solved by this point, thanks to a friendly biker from Nova Scotia. I stopped at “Trade Winds Trading Post” in Maine on my second day back and bumped into a couple of bikers who just happened to be from Cape Breton. We started talking, and I relayed my wish for cruise control. After squeezing the throttle open for house and hours, the right hand becomes fatigued. The end result is an inability to pinch, cup my hand, push outward with my fingers, or just generally perform feats of dexterity. I have read that too much can result in a nasty case of the Carpal Tunnel. So when I described my situation to these bikers, one of them kindly gave me a Throttle Rocker. This clever little device grips the throttle for me, so all I really need to do is push down on it with my wrist while holding the handle.

It’s a fascinating thing to experience the eastern seaboard on the back of my motorcycle–all the sights, sounds, smells (oh yes, I should write an essay about the smells I encountered along my trip), elements (as in, precipitation), joy, and pain that came with it. The stories that I accumulated find their setting in the world as opposed to in the car, giving me a much larger phenomenological context. I met scores of other bikers (which was an amazing experience in itself given that car travelers seem to avoid one another, while I found that bikers–including myself–look forward to the social interaction that comes with approaching other bikers at a gas station or rest stop), each eager to tell their own stories and share some tips about the road. And I can’t deny that I’m tickled by the romantic aspect of calculating the distance between two locations in “how many days ride” it totals. Just me, on the back of an iron horse, making my way across the known world. And as it happens, the romantic idea of the journey itself (or to some people, “crazy trip”) was enough to get people talking to me more openly in the field. As a researcher engaging in fieldwork, it was great to have my own story to tell when I arrived.

Today my good friend Dave asked, “Would you do it again?” You bet your ass I would (only, I’d be getting a more comfortable seat…).

Video Games As Art: The Semantics of Aesthetics

Quite some time ago, Roger Ebert was quoted as having said that “video games can never be art,” after which a horde of gamers smashed their angry fingers on keyboards struggling to shout into blog commentaries, “how dare you!” and “yes they can, to infinity!” and “he just doesn’t get it!” and similar rebuttals. The final insult, as it were, was when Ebert essentially solidified his point on aesthetics with a semantic challenge to readers:

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging, and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic.”

Ebert, from his position of security in Sun-Times Media and his time-honored popular face as a long-standing film critic, chose these words carefully to communicate his definitional approach to the aesthetics of art, while at the same time calling out to anyone who might dare to challenge that definition. The debate had essentially been set aside, with Ebert’s weighty word standing in the blogscape as the aesthetic last utterance, until recently it was re-awakened when Kellee Santiago of That Game Company gave a charming presentation at USC on the subject of video games as art. In fact, she said, “video games already are art.”

Santiago noted that we must “draw a line between appreciation and art,” wherein there are some games (such as chess) that demonstrate elegant and sophisticated elements (echoing Ebert’s words), and many people have developed elaborate identities and cultures concerning games (such as with football and mahjong), but that, in all their entertainment value, these games are not art in the way that the media of video games are art. She then mentioned various definitions of art as she understood them and as they resonated with her in society, and–taking up Ebert’s challenge–pulled together three examples of games she posited fit her definition of “video game art,” at least as much, if not more than early films or novels could be claimed as such. Video games, she prophesied, like films and novels, would continue to develop much in the way that the “chicken scratches” on cave walls eventually evolved into the paintings inside the Sistine chapel. Then, in possibly the weakest (and most unfortunate) point of her presentation, she noted the market shares of game sales to demonstrate the impact that these and similar games have had on popular culture. The strength of her presentation came from her (albeit somewhat ill-articulated) explanation of art and interactivity. She defined art–based on popular culture’s notion (from wikipedia) and Robert McKee’s sense of what makes a good writer–by stating, “art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging.” Later in her discussion, she noted that it is exciting to be alive in a time when the art of video gaming is coming into its own, ever-climbing toward new potentials for interactivity and artistic expression. As much as her presentation seemed to be the justified validation sought by those gamers befuddled by Ebert’s dismissal, it occurred to me that Santiago focused perhaps too much on the same definitional conundrum as Ebert, just from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Then in April, as expected, Ebert finally spoke on the subject again, meticulously rebuking Santiago’s chosen game examples by citing various evidence of his own, which he used to demonstrate the many ways in which her points were mistaken and naive. His experienced writing created a confident argument, especially since he noted the weight that his reflective article has in comparison to the extemporaneous delivery of Santiago’s oral presentation. Still, his argument came across as an even further semantic dismissal of Santiago’s claims, which despite his articulation exposed the relative ambiguity of how he defines (and more accurately how we define) art in popular culture. Most surprising was the locus of his argument, which–despite his own career serving as a noticeable element of popular culture–proposed to reinforce an antiquated divide between “cultured” and “un-civilized” notions of art, one that reminded me of Adorno and his camp.

Theirs is an elitist view that separates the culture of upper classes from those of the pulp, a way to separate that which is prized from that which is not. In social theory of the present, we concede that such modernist views about what comprises hierarchies are purely subjective, and given that hierarchies are socially constructed and socially performed, the true impact of any interactive media is not in what is thought to define it, but within the media itself. To argue and conjecture about what comprises a genre is the point, because genres are fluid and never fixed in time; genres are constantly redefined and re-entextualized. To argue old notions of elitist art is pointless.

To my knowledge, definitional aesthetic semantics exist in genres of all forms in our society (and most others): fashion, music, etiquette, dialect, ethnicity, and so on. In each definable existence through which people and groups of people identify there are a host of aesthetics and rationalizations that define how and why those aesthetics are prized and hierarchicized. In literary genres, for example, these theoretical notions have been reinforced since Aristotle’s Poetics as definable elements of what comprises a “classic.” Yet, as time moved forward, books that were once hailed as useless pulp have grown to be appreciated for a previously unrecognizable contribution, and the notion of “classics” changed to fit that growth. In seems that in some instances, people accept relativity of expression, yet the overall hierarchy that dictates what is acceptable and innovative and what is fodder remains. In music scholarship, too, we notice that the modernist trend of separating the elite from the mundane is outdated and counterintuitive. What comprises a classic is not so much in its definitional components, but in that which inspires many people to debate those definitional aesthetic semantics.

The woeful gamers who insecurely touted “He just doesn’t get it” were right on one level: resurrecting an outdated argument on classics and why they are defined as classics is rather pointless. Our understanding of genres of media and interactivity is constantly in flux, and–in today’s technological world–constantly being further mediated by machines. Ebert’s arguments ignore all of this in light of definitional semantics. It stands to reason, then, if Ebert continues to cling to positivistic definitions that separate “art” and “game,” his particular challenge will likely never be beatable, since any example provided to him regardless of the justification will simply come across as more definitional semantics. Thus, one might notice that Ebert’s dismissal of video games is rather tired and pointless.

This is what Kevin Levine also seems to think, in his recent rant published in this past month’s Game Informer magazine, issue #207. Reading his harangue is what inspired me to write this post in the first place.

Levine asks the “video game industry, journalists, and fans” to grow “a pair,” and–setting aside the implications of this popular statement and getting to the heart of the matter–he succinctly points out that gamers don’t need to seek validation from a film critic in the mainstream. “How insecure are we as an industry that we rush to seek validation not only from our own peers, but from critics in other fields, to tell us if what we’re doing is worthy of notice?” he asks. “I was in high school once. I spent the entire four years trying to match up with what I thought other people thought was cool and worthwhile. And I was miserable because the things I loved were not deemed valuable.”

Though rife with emotion, his diatribe communicates a strong message: drawing a line between the legacy of “civilized” elitist culture and “pathetic” (Ebert) gaming popularity is a worthless endeavor. In the subjectivity of existence, there is no center and periphery–there is only identity and interactivity. Drawing lines in the sand is a good way to start a fight about something, but why the hell would you want to do that? Creating a positivistic, fixed definition about the aesthetics of art doesn’t contribute a damn thing to anyone.

It’s a point worth consideration. Levine notes, “The world is changing,” which of course goes without saying. The world always changes. When people begin focusing on positivistic definitions about that world is when they lose sight of themselves. Levine adds, as if directly to Ebert, that “writing dismissive essays about the newest kind of media… is something we must not do, because that kind of thinking is the first step on the path to irrelevance.”

There’s nothing positivistic or definable about social interactivity. It is a complex web of human involvement, in which people identify, recall, and re-create. The story of that involvement and how it can encourage further interactivity is what is most important. The nature of our social economy certainly encourages a continuum of elitism and hierarchy–polarization and Cartesian dualities are, after all, good business. For some people, dialectics inspires rationalization for the formal features of exclusion from a genre boundary; for others it begs validation and legitimization to be included within that genre. And for those who are unsettled by the boundaries that exist–categories that have inclusionary and exclusionary features–new genres are proposed. Levine’s point of view is certainly the healthiest here: we would do well not to subscribe to drawing lines in the sand, so to speak, or recognizing those lines to seek the validation to stand on the favored side. Still, the final fascination of Levine’s rant and its place in the running dialog concerning video games as art is his closing. The end of his rant is a laundry list of what gamers have to be proud of–a reminder, perhaps, as if Ebert’s cryptic comment and the subsequent fallout has had the power to derail the import of nearly four decades of profound impact on society.

I hope the measure of meaningfulness is clear. I’ll close by stating this: It’s not in the definitions, it’s in the interaction that’s most important. To Ebert, the definition of art excludes video games yet illogically includes film–yet, video games incorporate most of the elements of film, especially new action-oriented games. To the masses of people who have a far closer identity with video games than Ebert, the genre boundaries of art have changed far more than his definition allows.